By Ryne Buchanan
The Portland Trail Blazers put forth a spirited effort against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, despite falling 137-129 at Fiserv Forum for their third straight loss. Playing without Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside due to injury, the Blazers were able to hang around against the heavily-favored Bucks all night thanks to a balanced offensive attack. CJ McCollum led the way with a game-high 37 points, while Eric Bledsoe paced the Bucks with 30 points of his own.
The Bucks started 7-7 from the field, jumping out to an early double-digit lead before the Blazers were able to catch fire themselves—going on a 12-2 run to get back in the game. Portland also ratcheted up the defensive effort after a sloppy first couple of minutes— sparked by Gary Trent Jr., making his first start of the season. The Bucks were able to connect on a couple of threes in the final minute to take a 37-27 lead into the break.
While the Blazers weren’t able to chip away at the lead, the efforts on both ends of the court from Skal Labissiere in the second quarter helped keep them in the game. The big man was able to score at the rim, the mid-range, and even from beyond the three-point arc, while recording three blocks in the period as well to anchor the Portland defense. The teams went back-and-forth in the frame, as Milwaukee took a 72-58 lead into halftime.
The Blazers were able the trim the deficit to single-digits through the first five minutes of the second half, thanks to some hot shooting from Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony. McCollum then took control of the offense from there, whittling the lead down to six, before the Bucks recovered—taking advantage of a two-minute Portland scoring drought to put the lead back at double-digits. Milwaukee led 107-98 at the horn.
Portland went on an 8-0 run early in the fourth to cut the deficit to just four. McCollum then connected on a three at the seven minute mark to make it 117-115, before back-to-back triples from Brook Lopez and Wesley Matthews put the Bucks back up eight. The Blazers were never able to get over the hump from there, and Milwaukee held on for the surprisingly hard-fought 137-129 victory.
Skal’s Big Night
While McCollum’s efforts were huge in wake of Lillard’s absence, the highlight of the night (from the Portland perspective) was the monster performance from Labissiere. The big man went off for a season-high 22 points (on 10-16 shooting) and 15 rebounds, along with five blocks in 28 big minutes off of the bench. Skal has shown flashes of promise throughout the young season, but he had the full arsenal on display on Thursday, including knocking down a pair of three-pointers.
Containing the Freak
Giannis Antetokounmpo was held in check offensively for much of the night, as the Blazers made a concerted effort to slow him down. It worked, as the reigning MVP finished with 24 points—six off his season average—on just 9-27 shooting. Unfortunately for Portland, he was able to take advantage of added pressure on himself to set-up teammates for favorable looks, finishing with 15 assists as part of yet another triple-double. Aside from Bledsoe, Donte DiVincenzo and former Blazer Pat Connaughton were the other main beneficiaries, as the two combined for 34 points on 14-25 shooting.
The Blazers were able to remain in the game thanks to hot three-point shooting (44% on the night) and balanced scoring. Anthony (18 points), Trent Jr. (13 points), Nassir Little (12 points) and Rodney Hood (11 points) joined McCollum and Labissiere in double-figures, while every Blazer who took a shot made at least one. Bigger outings from Anfernee Simons and Kent Bazemore—who were a combined 3-17 from the field—could have potentially helped the Blazers get over the hump, but the offense wasn’t really the issue.
The rebounding disparity was a major issue in the game, as the Bucks out-rebounded Portland 58-41. This makes sense, considering Labissiere was the only Blazer on the court over 6’8”, while Milwaukee had three legitimate seven-footers at their disposal. The Bucks’ 18 offensive rebounds were the real back-breaker, leading to a bevy of second-chance points for an already potent scoring team.
Overall, while they weren’t able to take home the “W”, Thursday’s performance felt like a moral victory for a Blazers team that has now lost five of their last six games overall. With winnable games on the horizon, it’s a welcome sign that they were able to hang right with one of the top teams in the league despite being short-handed, and there’s hope that they’ll be able to carry this positive momentum forward.