Breaking down Blazers' loss to Bucks
Discussing everything Trail Blazers after their 103-91 loss to Milwaukee on Thursday night at Moda Center …
• The old adage is that the first game back home after a lengthy road trip is like an extension of the trip. Boy, did that look to be the case for Portland, which won four of five games on the junket.
"Typically, this is the way it goes when you have a good road trip," point guard Damian Lillard said after the Blazers (13-9) got dominated by the Bucks (11-9). "The first game back home is a set-up for a letdown.
"We talked about that before the game. We wanted to come out and play above that, but (the Bucks) came in ready. They played a great game, and we made one too many mistakes to give ourselves a great chance to win it."
It was more than one too many mistakes. The Blazers had 19 turnovers that Milwaukee turned into 29 points. The Bucks won the battle in fast-break points, 16-0.
Six of Portland's turnovers came on entry passes to the post.
"We don't play through the post very much, but tonight it was pretty evident that we had trouble," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
• I'm no coach, but maybe the Blazers should play through the post a little more.
Jusuf Nurkic, matched up with slim-guy racer John Henson for the Bucks, collected 12 points and eight rebounds in the first seven minutes. The 7-foot Nurkic finished with 25 and 11, but it seemed like the Blazers didn't often enough exploit a Milwaukee weakness there.
I know, I know. The Blazers struggled with their entry passes to the post. Well, find a way.
• Milwaukee held down Portland's prolific scoring backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Lillard scored 18 points on 7-for-16 shooting; McCollum — who missed his first seven shots — finished 7 for 20 and with 15 points. They combined for 3-for-13 shooting from beyond the 3-point line.
"(The Bucks) played physical and aggressive on defense," Lillard said. "They gave us a lot of attention. Each time we came off pick-and-rolls, there were two guys there aggressively. They were trying to make us get rid of the ball. They did a good job of that."
I'm surprised more opponents don't try to defend the Blazers that way. I'd show on every pick-and-roll and double Lillard and McCollum on every foray to the basket. Make the other guys beat you.
• Thursday marked the return of Portland power forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who had missed the previous 13 games with a high ankle sprain. "The Chief" totaled six points — on back-to-back 3's in the second quarter — and five rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.
He should help out on the defensive end in particular.
• Portland, incidentally, entered the game second in the NBA in defensive team rating, behind only Boston. But for three quarters, the Blazers had little success containing Milwaukee's triumverate of Khris Middleton (26 points), Eric Bledsoe (25 points) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (20 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots). Middleton and Bledsoe each made 10 of 17 shots from the field in the game.
The Bucks led 87-66 after three quarters and increased the difference to 92-68 early in the fourth quarter. Portland responded with an 11-0 run to close to within 92-79 with 6:54 left. But the Blazers got no closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
"Milwaukee's length and aggressiveness gave us trouble," Stotts said. "We had a hard time finishing around the basket, especially the first half. That affected us on the other end. In the second half, we could never quite get there."
A year ago, Portland was 21st in the league in defensive rating. Moving up to No. 2 is quite a jump. I'm not sure if it's a mirage. The Blazers play the next three games at home — against New Orleans, Washington and Houston — and then back to the road for a difficult five-game trip, with stops at Golden State, Miami, Orlando, Charlotte and Minnesota.
After those eight games, we'll know more.
• Antetokounmpo is a bonafide MVP candidate. The 6-11 "Greek Freak," who turns 23 next week, ranks second in the NBA in scoring (29.2 points per game) and averages 10.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks while shooting .547 from the field. He had two impressive run-down blocks near the end of the first half that probably left the Blazers demoralized.
• My opinion of Nurkic ratcheted up a notch after Thursday's game. He was noticeably down as he turned from his cubicle to meet the media, but it wasn't as much because of the loss as a result of an indignity to his teammate.
Nurkic took offense to some fans booing after Meyers Leonard's 3-point shot grazed the front of the rim early in the fourth quarter.
"It's tough when you have fans who boo Meyers for no reason," Nurkic said. "If they boo him, boo everybody. Don't just boo the guy who just missed a shot. It's not good. Boo me. Boo everybody. … everybody missed shots. He didn't deserve to be booed for no reason."
Leonard has become the whipping boy for a portion of Blazer fans over the last four seasons. After a promising rookie campaign in 2012-13 — in which he had a 50/40/90 year — Leonard's performance has been below expectations. Many fans would like to see Leonard — in the second year of a four-year, $41-million contract — shown the door.
I'll say this about Leonard: Nobody on the Blazers works harder than the 7-1 center/forward. Nobody wants to help the team win more. Nobody on the team enjoys being a part of the community more. He is a good person, a man of integrity, a family man whom I hold a great deal of respect for.
Because he so wants to do well, Leonard puts too much pressure on himself. It's a shame, because he's a very talented, athletic "big" who could become a major contributor if he'd just relax and let it happen.
Nurkic is a golden boy in the city now. He gains nothing by complaining about the fans' reaction to a teammate. He lashed out, though, because he genuinely felt bad for Leonard, risking the fans' wrath for making his feelings known.
Those are the kind of things I notice about a player. And I liked what I saw from Nurkic on Thursday night.
• I visited with former Oregon State standout Gary Payton II after the game. Payton, who is on a two-way contract with the Bucks, played the final 53 seconds of garbage time, missing his only shot.
"I'm having fun," said Payton, who has averaged 20 points and 7.5 rebounds in two games with the G-League Wisconsin Herd. "I'm still working to get better every day."
Payton, 24, averaged 3.3 points in six games with Milwaukee last season. He has started two games this season but has totaled only 44 minutes, scoring 13 points.
"He's a young player who was thrown into the fire last year," coach Jason Kidd said. "He's done a really good job for us mostly coming off the bench this year. We're lucky to have him."