By Torey Jones
Contributor, 750 The Game
Sunday’s game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks was weird. Not only was it Damian Lillard’s first game against his old team, but the heavily favored Bucks found themselves with a 26-point deficit after the Blazers (the worst three-point shooting team in the league) shot 10-for-17 from three in the first half to go along with some stifling, turnover-forcing defense. After their most impressive half of the season, the Blazers allowed Milwaukee to complete the biggest comeback in the NBA this season while showcasing a consistent flaw in the process.
Here are some of my takeaways out of Sunday’s 108-102 loss in Milwaukee and what the team must address going forward.
Rooting for Damian Lillard to miss shots felt weird. Otherwise, this experience was much more mundane than Lillard’s return to Portland will be. Lillard started slow, including a blown fastbreak dunk which might be the worst missed layup of his career. But he had some clutch moments late to finish with 31 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists on 7-for-21 shooting from the field and 13-for-14 from the free throw line. Lillard’s shooting has been down to start the year, but he’s had many seasons where he’s taken a while to get things rolling. I’m interested to see what his peak play looks like in Milwaukee compared to his hot stretches as a Blazer.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Scoot Henderson was the renowned three-point shooter in this matchup. After being a dreadful 2-for-24 from three to start the season, Henderson made all three of his three-point attempts in the first half including a step-back from the corner over Lillard. This was Henderson’s second game wearing goggles, and after scoring a season-high 13 points and finally knocking down some threes, they might’ve made a legitimate difference. The key for opening up Henderson’s offensive game lies with his jumpshot. If he can get defenders out on him and biting on hesitation moves because they’re worried about his jumper, it’ll be easier for him to blow past his defender and get into the paint where his playmaking and athleticism can come alive.
The Blazers continue to have some serious offensive lulls in the second halves of games. The Blazers held an 88-72 lead with 2:31 left in the third quarter before Milwaukee came back to tie the game at 97-97 up until 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. That’s nine points in over 12 minutes of game time. The Blazers shot 3-for-15 during this stretch and had seven turnovers.
Here are some of the most notable second half lulls from the Blazers this season:
– 4 points in 7:29 against the Orlando Magic on October 27th
– 2 points in 8:13 against the Memphis Grizzlies on November 5th
– 6 points in 11:01 against the Utah Jazz on November 14th
– 8 points in 9:04 against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 17th
– 9 points in 12:06 against the Milwaukee Bucks on November 27th
While it shouldn’t be surprising that this roster can go extremely cold offensively, what’s troubling is that it’s a continuation of last year when the Blazers struggled with some enormous second half lulls with Damian Lillard and a healthy Anfernee Simons on the roster.
Chauncey Billups’ teams have a bad habit of resorting to isolation-heavy basketball in the second halves of games. While opposing defenses ratchet up the intensity, Portland’s offense stagnates, resulting in one player dribbling the air out of the ball while four teammates stand around waiting for something to happen. The lack of offensive structure is a problem, as the Blazers routinely struggle to generate good looks due to a failure to execute sets as well as a lack of creativity within the offense itself. While this was a problem with Lillard on the roster last year, it was more understandable. Without him, Portland has less of an excuse to rely on individual players to play the “hero” role where they’re responsible for creating something out of nothing, because no one on the roster comes close to Lillard’s ability to play that role.
What’s baffling was the Blazers refusal to run anything for DeAndre Ayton. While Malcolm Brogdon, Jerami Grant and Shaedon Sharpe combined to shoot 8-for-26 (30.7%) from the field in the second half, DeAndre Ayton played over 15 minutes and only took one field goal attempt. He made it, and finished 5-for-6 on the night. But instead of utilizing the highest-paid player on the team when the offense couldn’t buy a bucket, the Blazers continued to try to attack out of isolation or basic pick-n-roll sets against a set Milwaukee defense. This allowed the Bucks to load up in the paint, where they had 11 blocks on the night.
The Blazers play the second night of a back-to-back on Monday against the Indiana Pacers, who boast one of the most impressive offenses in the entire league. Tyrese Haliburton is averaging 25.4 points and 12.1 assists per game on insane efficiency (50.8 FG%, 45.4 3P%, 91.9 FT%), and may have the best combination of scoring and playmaking of any guard in the league right now. The Pacers rank dead last in adjusted Defensive Rating, so expect a high-scoring affair in this one. After that, the Blazers will have a light stretch where they play five games in 16 days, including games on the road against the Cavaliers and Jazz as well as two yet-to-be-announced consolation games as part of the in-season tournament.