A great team that's been struggling on the road against a good team that's underwhelmed at home. So I guess this qualifies as a "something's gotta give" game, eh?
Though they remain an impressive 32-15 overall, the Portland Trail Blazers have lost five straight on the road and both games on their current Eastern road trip, including a 105-99 decision against the indomitable Hawks coming just last night. Fortunately for Terry Stotts' club, the Bucks have yet to find much of a groove at home; they're 2-6 in their last eight at BMO Harris Bradley Center and could be missing Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova for a second straight game. Also fortunate for Stotts? He still has all-star big man LaMarcus Aldridge, who this week opted to forego surgery on his injured left thumb and responded by pouring in 64 points over the last two games.
On the plus side, the Bucks' form away from home continues to impress, raising hopes that their performances at the BC may come back around. After blowing out the Pistons at home a week ago, Milwaukee took the Spurs to the final minute on Sunday before taking care of both the Heat and Magic during the week. So they're back in a familiar spot: Slightly above .500 overall (24-22), but still in danger of dropping under .500 at home (10-10).
Aldridge has had to modify his game somewhat due to the injury, but so far it's not showing in the box score. Though the 29-year-old has become increasingly perimeter oriented in recent years (39% of his shots are long twos, hitting 42%), it hasn't prevented him from posting career-bests of 24.0 ppg, 23.4 PER, and .182 WS/48. All of which makes the health of his thumb central to the Blazers' playoff ambitions, and in that department the Blazers have much to be ambitious about.
At 32-15, they're seeded fourth in the West and a modest 5.5 games adrift of the league-best Warriors, with Aldridge and Damian Lillard forming one of the league's preeminent inside-out combinations. While Nicolas Batum has disappointed, Lillard has raised his game to another level, posting career-best per game numbers (21.6 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.6 rpg), upping his efficiency numbers across the board (21.4 PER, .194 WS/48), and dramatically improving his finishing at the rim (from 51.2% to 62.6%).
Still, losing six of their last eight games is reason for some concern, particularly out West. The Blazers are tied with the Clippers on record and the seventh seeded Spurs are just two games behind, while even the eighth seeded Suns are only 4.5 games behind Portland. As well as the Blazers have played, losing Aldridge for any prolonged period would be a massive blow that could even threaten their playoff hopes altogether.
The Bucks didn't miss Zaza Pachulia (calf) and Ersan Ilyasova (groin) on Thursday in Orlando, but a paper thin frontline isn't exactly an ideal defense for Aldridge and company. Both Ilyasova and Pachulia are listed as questionable tonight, so we'll keep you posted. While Jared Dudley started in Ilyasova's absence on Thursday, it's possible Jason Kidd could opt to go bigger initially tonight (uh, Johnny O'Bryant?) or he could also opt to match Giannis Antetokounmpo or Henson up against Aldridge. Recall that Giannis did well defending Chris Bosh in the fourth quarter in Miami on Tuesday, so it's possible we'll see him trying his hand at Aldridge at some point tonight.
Fortunately for the Bucks, Portland also has some of the same problems up front. Aside from Aldridge's injury, they've been coping without starting center/glue guy extraordinaire Robin Lopez (broken hand) as well as reserve big man Joel Freeland (shoulder).
The Blazers' efficiency ratings have made an interesting reversal this season. After ranking second offensively and 16th defensively a year ago, the Blazers are now the second best team defensively and "just" 11th offensively. Key to their defensive success has been limiting teams from deep -- no team has allowed fewer threes or conceded a lower percentage from deep (31.0%), and they've been similarly successful contesting and forcing misses from mid-range. Credit Stotts' conservative, anti-doubling scheme and improved rotations for much of that, though it also helps explain why the Blazers force few turnovers and rank just 24th in fast break points per game. That would seem to give them surprisingly little in common with the more high-risk, high-energy Bucks, though effort and discipline -- funny how those seem to matter to defense, eh? -- are probably the key ingredients to both teams' success.
Key Matchup: Lillard vs. Knight
Lillard sounded pretty salty about his all-star snub, and you can understand why. He's been terrific for a team with legitimate hopes of contending in the packed Western Conference, but that extra bit of motivation didn't translate into results on Friday. Lillard hit just 6/20 shots in Atlanta, so not exactly the kind of statement he was hoping to make. You'd have to expect bigger and better things from him tonight, if only because he's too good to be stuck in a slump for long.
In contrast, Brandon Knight has been more diplomatic in discussing his absence from the initial list of all-star reserves, though that probably shouldn't be a surprise. He isn't in Lillard's class in terms of production or team success, and perhaps more importantly he still has a chance to be named as an injury replacement for Dwyane Wade, who was selected by the coaches as an all-star reserve but is expected to miss all-star weekend with a hamstring injury. Via Charles Gardner of the Journal-Sentinel:
"It's not going to take away from the season that I'm having," Knight said after the Bucks' 115-100 victory over Orlando. "I'm just blessed to be in consideration.
"If I'm blessed enough to be picked by the commissioner, I'll be more than proud to represent the city of Milwaukee. I think it would be big for our city and what our team has done thus far this season. Coming from where we came from last year, that's a team thing."
Ironically Wade initially tweaked his hamstring chasing Knight on a fast break dunk, three days after Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles defending Knight on an inbounds play. Translation: Tread carefully, Damian.
|2014/15 NBA Season|
(32-15, 12-10 road)
|January 31, 2015|
|BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI|
|FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ|
|Brandon Knight||PG||Damian Lillard|
|Khris Middleton||SG||Wesley Matthews|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||SF||Nicolas Batum|
|Jared Dudley||PF||LaMarcus Aldridge|
|John Henson||C||Chris Kaman|
|2014/15 Advanced Stats|
|93.9 (14th)||Pace||94.3 (12th)|
|104.0 (21st)||ORtg||107.7 (11th)|
|102.3 (6th)||DRtg||102.1 (2nd)|