The Portland Trail Blazers can't stop winning. The Milwaukee Bucks don't know how to start.
Truth be told, Wednesday night's contest was nothing to write home about for the red-hot Blazers, but playing against a struggling, injury-plagued Bucks team it ultimately didn't matter. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 10 of his game-high 21 points in the third quarter to help Portland to a double-digit lead, and the Bucks were ultimately too sloppy down the stretch to make Portland sweat as they cruised to their eight straight win.
An uninspiring night overall was reflected rather well by the Bucks' box score particulars: Luke Ridnour led Milwaukee in scoring with just 13 points on 14 shots, Ekpe Udoh played 19 minutes without tallying a point/rebound/block/steal, Khris Middleton (4/4 fg, 8 pts) and Nate Wolters each played fewer than 20 minutes, and Caron Butler's ho-hum return from injury (29 minutes, 4/10 fg, 9 pts, 7 rebs) meant zero minutes for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Sigh.
John Henson did manage 10 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks off the bench, but he also back-ironed a dunk attempt in the final five minutes and missed six of his 11 shots (OK for many, less so for Henson thus far this season). On the plus side: among his five makes were a pair of long jumpers (no, seriously), the first of which came with the shot-clock running down and the second because he was feeling it. Henson's stepped up to hit jumpers out of necessity a number of times this season, so we'll have to see how his newfound confidence plays out going forward. We all know a mid-range jumper could do wonders for his offensive versatility and the Bucks overall flexibility on offense, but he's shown flashes of this before and it's never really materialized into anything reliable.
Even with Portland uncharacteristically misfiring from three point range for much of the night (11/31), Milwaukee couldn't prevent Terry Stotts' bunch from getting good looks off ball rotation and ultimately they made enough plays to keep the Bucks at bay down the stretch. Despite starting the game with a rather uninspiring veteran-laden lineup of Ridnour, O.J. Mayo, Butler, Ekpe Udoh and Zaza Pachulia, the Bucks weathered a red-hot start from Wes Matthews (13 of his 15 points in the first quarter) and matched the Blazers shot for shot in the opening stanza. Milwaukee trailed 23-19 when Henson swatted Aldridge at the basket and ignited a fast break finished by Middleton's acrobatic layup, which Wolters followed up with a transition finish of his own to help the Bucks to a 24-23 advantage after one.
You might have figured the Bucks' second unit would have some success against the Blazers' less threatening bench unit thereafter, but that advantage didn't materialize until after Aldridge had staked Portland to a 67-57 lead late in the third quarter. With the reserves back in, Milwaukee narrowed the gap to a manageable 70-64 deficit after three periods following a Henson layup and five straight from Ersan Ilyasova, who also came off the bench in his first game back from an ankle injury. Ilyasova not surprisingly looked a bit off his game in finishing 2/8 from the field with five boards and four assists in 22 minutes, as he struggled to find open looks against a Blazer defense known for playing fairly straight up in order to minimize open perimeter shots.
The Bucks stil had a chance to make it interesting down the stretch after a Butler triple narrowed the Portland lead to 84-78 with 4:13 left, but three straight Milwaukee turnovers led to a lay-up and a dunk for Damian Lillard and that was that. Despite holding the Blazers' star trio of Aldridge, Matthews and Lillard to 55 points on 55 shots, the Bucks were left to rue 17 Portland offensive rebounds and 12 second-half turnovers in what felt like Milwaukee's most lackluster game to date.
The loss drops Milwaukee to an East-worst 2-8, which for lotto-watching purposes puts them second behind Utah (1-12) for the much-coveted title of worst team in the league. The Bucks next travel to Philadelphia for a date with the Sixers, who have lost four straight and seven of nine following their shocking 3-0 start.