Brew a cup of coffee, because this is gonna be a late night. In the first of four Western Conference road games, the Milwaukee Bucks will visit the Portland Trail Blazers.
In a return to their regularly-scheduled programming, the Bucks walloped the Sacramento Kings on Sunday afternoon, and saw both their offensive and defensive ratings rise to 4th and 1st, respectively. The defense – best in the league, can you believe it?! – showed some cracks in the armor against Boston, but that game also came with a series of specific circumstances that are rarely repeated in the NBA: well-rounded pick-and-pop bigs, a quick point guard who can shoot off the bounce, and a gameplan specifically tweaked to maximize the holes in Milwaukee’s three point coverage. Health-wise, the Bucks tonight will only be missing D.J. Wilson (hamstring) and Christian Wood (finger).
Player to Watch: Brook Lopez
Not the most fleet of foot, Lopez’s job description is to drop deep into the paint on pick-and-roll plays, which is precisely how the Celtics got open for so many threes last week. Against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers boast a pair of guards who are as potent threats to shoot off the dribble as Kyrie Irving. This means that Lopez might be pulled out past the free throw line...if Mike Budenholzer lets him. On offense, Lopez has cooled off from deep (only 3/17 over the last three games), but as long as he remains confident in hoisting up the attempts, his 33.9% make rate should tick back up.
Don’t look now, but the Trail Blazers have something going on in the Western Conference. 4-1 over their last five, including wins at Indiana, at Houston, and against New Orleans, the Blazers’ performance has actually departed from what you might expect: their offense is merely average, but their defense ranks among the league’s best. Part of that is the revamped depth with their bigs, and another part is how well Evan Turner is keeping things moving when the pair of starting Portland guards is on the bench. And this is all with McCollum playing sub-par (by his standards) ball, a trend that many expect to reverse soon.
On the medical side, Nik Stauskas (quadricep) is questionable, and Maurice Harkless (knee) is out.
Player to Watch: Jusuf Nurkic
First off, whenever Jusuf Nurkic is mentioned, this has to be brought up too:
WOW, Giannis Antetokounmpo game-saving block on 7-foot Jusuf Nurkic ALL HAIL THE GREEK FREAK pic.twitter.com/6aiHxknmjV— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) October 22, 2017
/obligatory “GIMME ‘DAT!”
But in all seriousness, Nurkic will present the Bucks’ front court with a challenge; he’s averaging a career per-game high in points (15.3) and rebounds (10.1), shooting a career-best from the field (0.536), and he’s dipping his toe in the three-point waters (3PAr of 0.116). Letting him get loose while all of the attention is focused on Lillard and McCollum is peak pre-Bud Bucks, and seeing the team’s newly-found good habits win out will be a welcome sight indeed.
Game 10: Against Portland, the Bucks will...
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Win big (by 10 or more points)
Win close (by 9 or less points)
Lose close (by 9 or less points)
Lose big (by 10 or more points)