We can all remain happy for at least another day as the Milwaukee Bucks managed to beat the Portland Trailblazers 103-91 last night. A Khris Middleton buzzer-beater capped what was a slick-shooting first quarter for the shooting guard, righting his wayward ship briefly to the tune of 12 points as Milwaukee led 33-21. A 10-0 Blazer run to start the second nipped some of those good vibes in the bud. Thankfully Milwaukee weathered that storm and found their way into halftime with a 60-45 lead after Giannis erased any memory of shot attempts by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to close out the half. Bledsoe led the Bucks with 17 as Milwaukee shot 57.4% compared to a horrid 37.0% for the Blazers. The Bucks held a 21-point advantage as the third quarter buzzer sounded and after a brief scare to start the fourth quarter, they coasted to a satisfying victory and 3-1 overall record for their first West Coast road trip of the season.
Three Main Observations
How Milwaukee would handle Portland’s pick and roll game was the primary defensive storyline coming into tonight. Portland’s sharpshooting guards can make you pay practically from halfcourt and the Bucks needed their point-of-attack defenders to fight through screens so their backside help wouldn’t get demolished by Nurkic. Nurk feasted in the first but the Bucks held McCollum and Lillard in check. In the second quarter, Stotts started throwing two consecutive screens up top to try and squeeze a little extra space on the court. Lillard was able to find daylight with a deep open three and narrowly missed on an open look from the wing. They held those two to just 10 points and 4-19 combined shooting on the half though. Milwaukee prevented them from exploiting their trap-heavy defense throughout the game too, showing decent discipline and forcing the Blazers to try and take defenders one-on-one instead. Their backcourt’s shooting numbers speak for themselves.
Eric Bledsoe followed up his finest first half as a Buck in Sacramento with yet another scoring outburst tonight, going for 17 in the initial two quarters. When he’s actually making shots, as he was tonight, in addition to his hounding defense and ability to put some sort of scare into defenses off the dribble, he’s the potent tool the Bucks hoped they were getting when they traded for him. Additionally, two of his second quarter jumpers were also Giannis-assisted. His improved play has helped stake Milwaukee to sizable leads to provide a semblance of comfort even when teams make second half runs.
The triumvirate of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Bledsoe (The M.B.A. Club) all showed out tonight in a considerable way. Milwaukee’s big three (for the moment) have been much ballyhooed but rarely have they all shown up in tandem for an entire contest. Tonight wasn’t a scoring explosion by any means, but their solid playmaking and ability to help Milwaukee avoid droughts set the tone for a successful offensive evening. Even with Giannis’ poor 7-20 shooting game, he still found ways to contribute defensively in his do-it-all Giannis manner. Their combined 71 points would be welcome in all games going forward, particularly ones where the only other role players to notch double digits are John Henson and Malcolm Brogdon, barely.
Bonus Bucks Bits
Portland didn’t have Al-Farouq Aminu in their first matchup with Milwaukee, leaving them to find a replacement for Giannis duty. I have a feeling Aminu sort of wishes he could’ve sat tonight’s contest out too after this dousing of the Blazer.
Milwaukee did a decent job in the first quarter preventing Portland’s diminutive duo of McCollum and Lillard from sniping away from downtown in their uber-high pick and roll sets. Unfortunately, they forgot about the roll part of that equation. Nurkic fleeced them on a few bullying strolls down the paint for simple finishes at the rim. Flashbacks to Milwaukee’s broken coverage against Andre Drummond danced in my head.
Remember that Thon Maker quasi flat-footed finish against Sacramento? He had another opportunity for an uncontested flush at the rim after working the pick and roll with Middleton but he found himself stuffed by the cylinder. Maker’s freaky athletic for his size, but he continues to struggle even eclipsing the rim on those opportunities. Bizarre.
Eric Bledsoe pounced on a baseline cut opportunity for a finesse layup finish while Malcolm Brogdon probed the Blazers’ defense in the second quarter. It wasn’t anything remarkable, but it did remind me how much I miss Jabari lurking in that space like a Major Cat stalking his unsuspecting prey at the tin.
Giannis snuffed out consecutive transition opportunities by McCollum and Lillard on back-to-back possessions to close out the second quarter. Both were equally awesome and soul-crushing. His footsteps must sound like the Grim Reaper’s to anyone hoping for an easy bucket. I mean look at this:
This stride from Giannis. How even pic.twitter.com/qCEAREMiBi— Bart Winkler (@WinksThinks) December 1, 2017
I can’t remember any Bucks defender who seems like he would be as annoying to play against as Eric Bledsoe. The dude just will not give up on screens, is a relentless pest for anyone trying to casually dribble in the backcourt and several times tonight he hopped into a lobbed passing lane to start a fast break down the court. The “no fastballs” philosophy, preventing teams from firing easy passes due to Milwaukee’s overwhelming length, felt real at times tonight with the sloppy dishes Portland was slinging around the court. Bledsoe was a central part of that.
Also, as Bledsoe walked off the court for a sub in the third, the amount of time he spent waiting at the scorer’s table for Deandre Liggins to slap his hand was preposterous. This guy seems like the consummate gentleman’s teammate considering Liggins took his sweet time ripping off his warmup before not leaving Bledose’s mitt hanging.
Brogdon’s reverse layup that he hit midway through the fourth to cut off an 11-0 scoring run for Portland will probably not be remembered by many. However, it felt like a significant bit of playmaking for the somewhat forgotten guard. The Blazers shoulders noticeably sagged in the aftermath, and it went a long way towards sealing this one up as a comfortable victory rather than a down-the-stretch squeaker.
One peculiar bit of scoring statistics from tonight stems from the oft-maligned midrange game. Milwaukee’s ranked just 16th in terms of percentage of their points that come from midrange (12.7%) compared to Portland’s 15.8% which ranks sixth. Tonight, Milwaukee made use of that dead sea to the tune of a 26-16 point advantage over the Blazers who are averaging 1.5 more made field goals from that area than the Bucks on the season. Eric Bledsoe’s big night had a lot to do with that, but just an interesting wrinkle given Milwaukee’s preference for the paint.