After falling short in Denver on Monday, Doc Rivers and the Milwaukee Bucks hoped to notch their first win under a new coach against the Portland Trail Blazers. With it also being Damian Lillard's first game in Portland since his trade to Milwaukee, the buildup contained an air of expectation. Unfortunately, the return was soured by a Portland 119-116 victory. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 27 points and Dame, in his return, managed to score 25 points with 6 rebounds and 7 assists.
It was slow going for Milwaukee to start the game as the Bucks found themselves in an early hole — eventually overcome by Lillard, Khris Middleton, and Giannis to nab a lead that would be held on to throughout the first. Brook Lopez continued his hot shooting from three, making two in the first quarter. Milwaukee would go on to lead by eight at one point, but a 11-4 Portland run to close the quarter trimmed Milwaukee’s lead to merely 38-37 after a frame.
The offensive heat from the first kept up for both teams into the first half of the second quarter, trading baskets and the lead seven times in the quarter. Things would eventually cool, but it was Portland who came out of mid-quarter timeout with the crisper execution on their way to a slight 65-67 lead at the half.
Milwaukee got a fast start in the third quarter on the backs of Giannis and Lillard, but the burst was brief and Portland methodically reeled back in. The three ball went missing for the Bucks, forcing the offense to resort to tougher interior buckets to maintain pace — gradually increasing the execution challenges that would hamstring the team down the line. Khris Middleton’s seven third quarter points kept things respectable, although Portland regularly found answering shots that would gradually add to their lead. While not at all being out of it, it was clear Milwaukee had given itself no choice but to try and grind out a result — with on-paper dominance MIA, they were down 91-96 after three.
Of course, the team then forgot about even rudimentary execution with the game on the line. The offense disappeared and six turnovers in roughly two minutes stepped into the void. Great.
Ranging from bad passes to Giannis’s old-reliable offensive fouls, Milwaukee opened the door for Portland to walk through on their way to a 10 point lead before Doc Rivers called time. Dame staunched the bleeding with a deep three to provide a spark, but there was no follow-through on either end of the floor. Opportunities to regain the lead were plentiful, although the Blazers neither made enough crucial mistakes nor did Milwaukee find the capability to bring an ugly road win home. Clutch time execution was left a bit wanting, although the deficit would drop to one on numerous occasions (and Milwaukee even briefly nabbed the lead late with a Dame-Giannis alley-oop). Anfernee Simons hit one more basket to get the score to 116-117, only for Milwaukee to follow-up by seeing Brook Lopez miss a late three and subsequently inbounding the ball to... Giannis? Who was intentionally fouled and would appropriately miss both free throws late on the way to defeat, 116-119.
What Did We Learn?
Damian Lillard meant a lot to Portland.
Welcome back, D.O.L.L.A. pic.twitter.com/37G9lW5YbH— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 1, 2024
Yes, this “What We Learned” seems pretty generic and straightforward, but it is rare for a player of Dame’s stature to spend such a long time with one team as the face of the franchise. During an era of willful superstar movement, Dame was part of the small group of exceptions (until he also demanded out). Portland and Milwaukee are a lot alike: To get a superstar, you have to strike gold in the draft or pull off a big trade. Portland got their star only to eventually see him leave; a credit to the fanbase and the relationship Lillard had with the city that his return was marked with such warmth and positivity. Beginning with a standing ovation during the announcement of starting lineups, Lillard would receive cheers when scoring or during spells of great skill. Something of a rarity in an oftentimes cutthroat business like professional sports.
Standing O, for The Letter O pic.twitter.com/24m9x28lCi— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 1, 2024
Another game, another night on the bench for the Young Bucks
Maybe Doc Rivers is trying to figure out who he can rely on from his veteran core, but through two games as head coach he has kept Andre Jackson Jr., MarJon Beauchamp, and the likes of AJ Green/Chris Livingston firmly on the bench. It’d be one thing if the vets looked great from their bench appearances. That they actually look quite poor makes the decision to leave the youth cooling their heels a little inexplicable.
Transition defense has improved.
One of the most significant issues that plagued Adrian Griffin’s time in Milwaukee was the Bucks’ inability to defend in transition. Last night, Milwaukee only allowed nine fast break points to the Trail Blazers. That has to be a season low, and especially notable given the turnovers the Bucks committed.
Brook Lopez’s Three-Point Renaissance
In our last non-emergency episode of Deer Diaries, I mentioned that Brook Lopez was shooting more threes with a lower make percentage to boot. In short, the worst of both worlds. Splash Mountain has awoken in the past three games, and his shooting helped the Bucks stay in the game tonight when it could have fallen apart. Lopez has shot 15/28 from three in the last three games, so we hope this hot streak can continue and lead to some victories eventually (even if it is unclear whether he should be the guy taking threes late with the game in the balance).
Bonus Bucks Bits
- I might need some time to adjust to the Doc Rivers blunt post-game presser
What did you think of the defense to start the game?— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) February 1, 2024
"Awful." - Doc Rivers
- Here was the explanation of the final shot and how it came to be.
Asked Brook Lopez about the indounds play with 4.6 seconds left where they needed to go the length of the floor tonight.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) February 1, 2024
He confirmed it was the same play the Bucks ran against the Kings that got Lillard a game-winning 3.
- The crowd was counting Giannis’ time at the free throw line in the first quarter. I was hoping that Game 6 in the Finals would have shut this down for good, but it continues to haunt NBA arenas the nation over.
- The beginning of the fourth quarter would be more enjoyable if you played Benny Hill music with it. It is the only way to make it make more sense.
- There were 14 lead changes and 12 times where the game was tied; unsurprisingly, the largest lead for either team was 10. If you like close basketball, you got something of that last night.
- Milwaukee committed 12 turnovers in the second half — six of them in a two minute span. It is almost like you’d have to try to be that bad.