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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Antetokounmpo leads Milwaukee to win No. 35 as Blazers fall to 16-24

COURTESY FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Giannis Antetokounmpo has led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 35-6 record this season, including a 122-101 victory at Portland on Saturday night.The Trail Blazers' attempt to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo was something like Australian firefighters trying to quell their massive blaze with a battalion of water pistols.

The "Greek Freak" was in full glory Saturday night at Moda Center, blasting his way to 32 points, 17 rebounds and six assists in Milwaukee's 122-101 victory over Portland.

It came a night after the 6-11 Antetokounmpo scored a season-low 13 points in the Bucks' 127-106 win at Sacramento, a portent of big things to come.

"When I'm not that good the previous game, I'm usually a little more aggressive the next game," Antetokounmpo said. "That's the way it's been since I can remember, since I started playing basketball. That's what I did tonight."

It was far from a one-man show, though, as Milwaukee hit the halfway point in the regular season 35-6. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe combined for 59 points for the Bucks, who finished 3-1 on a four-game, six-day trip. They're on pace for a 70-win regular season, a mark achieved twice in NBA history.

"We're playing great basketball," Antetokounmpo said. "We're having fun. Guys are getting comfortable. If you go out there and play hard and play together, good things will happen."

They will if the leader is the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player, coached by the able Mike Budenholzer and surrounded by a nice complement of talent.

"Giannis brings his intensity every night," said reserve guard Pat Connaughton, one of three former Blazers now playing for Milwaukee. "It's our job to continue to help him and be the best role players we can be around him. We've done a pretty good job of it."

Antetokounmpo is putting up staggering numbers, averaging 29.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists while shooting .550 from the field and an improving .325 from 3-point range.

"He's a rare, once-in-a-generation type of talent," said Milwaukee starting shooting guard, veteran Wes Matthews, another ex-Blazer. "He wants to get better, he wants to learn, he wants to grow, and he wants to win more than anything. He's a great guy, and he's young. People forget about that."

Giannis just turned 25. His work ethic, teammates say, is infectious.

"He's extremely focused, extremely driven," said reserve center Robin Lopez, the other former Portland player now with the Bucks. "It's been a lot of fun to be around him."

Will Giannis be the 12th player in NBA history to be a back-to-back MVP?

"He's in the discussion," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He's the (reigning) MVP. You're the champ until somebody knocks you off. His team is the best team in the league. What he's doing for this team ... he's one of the top three; then it becomes a matter of taste."

Stotts didn't specify his three candidates, though it likely comes from a list that includes LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, James Harden of Houston and Kawhi Leonard of the L.A. Clippers.

Connaughton, who played his first three NBA seasons (2015-18) with Portland, compares Giannis with Portland's Damian Lillard.

"They're different players, but the similarities I see are they work like they're me — like they're second-round (draft) picks," Connaughton said. "They want to be the best they can be, and they want to play to win."

When Giannis, Middleton and Bledsoe combine for 91 points, as they did Saturday night, it makes it easy for the coach. Budenholzer's task is singular: "I just try to get out of their way."

The Blazers — missing just about every "big" in their lineup due to injury and illness — put up a fight, but were simply too undermanned to pose a serious threat.

"We were able to get out and run and knock down shots and defend well," Giannis said. "With guys like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — it's hard. It's not easy to beat those guys. But we made it tough for them. I'm really happy about how we showed up tonight."

Connaughton signed a two-year free-agent contract with Milwaukee before the 2018-19 season, then enjoyed the ride as the Bucks won an NBA-best 60 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

"The guys in the locker room saw this coming last year, saw the way we jelled, saw what we were capable of," Connaughton said. "We believed in it, and we built off of it.

"Last year, nobody expected anything of us. We were able to surprise those people. This year, people expect a lot of us. We get everyone's best shot every single night, and we've been able to hold up."

Or as Matthews put it: "We expect to get everybody's best shot, but we expect to give everybody our best shot, too."

That has worked well, even as the Bucks have had a bulls-eye on their backs in every game this season. How is it different, then, to be the hunted instead of the hunters?

"We're still hunting," Antetokounmpo said with a smile. "Teams are going to come out and play hard against us, but we have to keep hunting. We have to have that mentality.

"And that's what we've been doing, with 35 wins — it's crazy. In all but one loss, we were right there to the end. I'm really happy with the way we're been playing. We have to keep it up. We're looking to play a long season."

NOTES — Lillard scored 26 points and McCollum added 20 for the Blazers (16-24), who have lost eight of their last 10 games. Carmelo Anthony contributed 19 points and 11 rebounds. ... Starting center Hassan Whiteside sat out the game due to a respiratory infection. The Blazers were left with 6-9 forwards Anthony Tolliver and Jaylen Hoard at the post. Tolliver contributed seven points and a season-high 11 rebounds in 28 minutes. ... Portland is in a virtual tie for 10th place with Phoenix and Minnesota (both 15-23), with Sacramento (15-24) a half-game back. The Blazers are 1 1/2 games back of No. 8 Memphis (17-22) and No. 9 San Antonio (16-21). ... Stotts said center Jusuf Nurkic, who continues with rehab from his broken leg, is doing some limited basketball activities. "He works with the H&P (health and performance) department, but he hasn't done anything with the team," Stotts said. "He'll play 2-on-2, 3-on-3 with the coaches."

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