November 21, 2018, 11:56 pm
Two of the league’s biggest surprises faced off Thanksgiving eve. Unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks that will enter the holiday season looking far more like a true contender than early-season pretender. The Blazers, playing on the second leg of a back-to-back and nearing the end of a six-game, cross-country road trip, was dominated by the Bucks on Wednesday night, falling by the eye-popping score of 143-100 – the sixth-largest deficit in the history of the franchise.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was simply too big, too strong, too fast, too long and too skilled for Portland from the opening tip. In an absolutely ringing endorsement of his MVP chances, Milwaukee’s superstar finished with 33 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists, and three steals on 13-of-20 shooting. The Bucks scored a whopping 72 points in the paint, a seeming majority of which resulted directly from drives by Antetokounmpo, whether by layup, dunk or kick-out pass that led to open opportunities elsewhere. He was a monster on the other end, too, routinely blowing up Portland’s offense with aggressive weak-side help. He created two turnovers by Lillard alone, first jumping in front of a cross-court pass while the Blazers star attacked, then digging down from one pass away to deflect a dish to Nurkic, finishing the play with a dunk in transition.
On this night, the ball often just bounced Milwaukee’s way, too. One of Antetokounmpo’s several rim-rattling dunks came after Malcolm Brogdon air-balled an open corner three-point so badly that Moe Harkless, back in the lineup and starting the second half, misjudged the carom, leading to a loose ball.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) November 22, 2018
Antetokounmpo also drained multiple jumpers, too, including this smooth fadeaway to cap a first half the Bucks won 72-50.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) November 22, 2018
Despite shooting a pedestrian 15-of-45 from 3-point range, Milwaukee rung up 34 assists. The Bucks, taking full advantage of a weary Portland team, went an incredible 34-of-45 from the restricted area. They pulled down 13 offensive rebounds and scored 22 fast-break points, too. This was one of the most complete offensive performances a team has put together this season, absent efficient jump-shooting or otherwise.
Unfortunately, defense was hardly the Blazers’ only issue on Wednesday night. Frustrated by Milwaukee’s length and activity for 48 minutes, Portland shot 36.6 percent from the field and just 9-of-42 from the three-point line. Al-Farouq Aminu missed 12 of his 13 shots and all nine of his tries from deep, several of which came without a defender in arm’s length – at the Bucks’ design. Assists are inherently hard to come by when jumpers aren’t falling, but the Blazers total of ’13 dimes, their lowest of the season, was indicative of something more. Portland was coerced into tricky shots from mid- and floater-range throughout this game, and sometimes even lacked the burst to produce those low-efficient looks at all.
Damian Lillard, true to form, refused to succumb to the inevitabilities of another loss. A sizable share of his 13 free-throw attempts came with this game essentially decided. Jusuf Nurkic kept fighting, too, using his size advantage on the interior to bully his way through and pivot his way around Bucks defenders. With the exception of a typically productive night from C.J. McCollum, though, the road-tired Blazers just didn’t have anything else going.
Reminder: The Bucks have been the best team in basketball this season. They entered Wednesday’s play with a +10.6 net rating, a mark that would have comfortably led the league last season. Milwaukee also got off to slow starts in their last two games, comeback wins over the Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets, and stressed the importance of getting off to a good start against the Blazers. Mission accomplished, as Mike Budenholzer’s team bursted out to a 24-7 lead in the first quarter.
The Blazers took care of business on Tuesday, going shot-for-shot with the lottery-bound New York Knicks to eek out a win in crunch time. A victory 24 hours later, again in hostile territory opposite a team with the second-best record in the NBA, would have been something close to shocking. For a veteran group like Portland, a loss is a loss accompanied by extenuating circumstances like these; the margin need not matter.
Stotts, thankfully, pulled his starters after the third quarter, opening the final stanza with Anfernee Simons and Wade Baldwin on the floor. As the Blazers’ coach made clear: Time to focus on Friday’s tilt in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors.