On Tuesday night Milwaukee found the perfect tonic for a much needed bounce back performance after a horrible patch of games, the Sacramento Kings. The Bucks beat down the Kings from start to finish, rounding out 25 point winners and the starters getting a rare rest in the fourth quarter.
After seemingly hitting rock bottom a few days earlier in Utah, Milwaukee came out with a purpose in this one, Giannis in particular looking hell bent on ensuring this one was finished early. Antetokounmpo had 11 first quarter points en route to 32, with 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals in only 26 minutes. The minimal minutes were certainly the most pleasing aspect for Bucks fans, Giannis still struggling with knee soreness and playing through a mammoth work load that sees him leading the league in minutes played per game. In what was a balanced attack on the night, Eric Bledsoe finally got his jump shot going, knocking down three triples and finishing with 21 points.
But by far the biggest development of the night was the Bucks noticeable change in the defensive scheme. Instead of relentlessly blitzing the ball handler on every possession the Bucks were switching with regularity, something the all-length defense should be able to do effectively. Not surprisingly, the long arms of Giannis, Khris Middleton, Tony Snell and co were able to jump passing lanes and create deflections that led to steals and transition opportunities.
Another good sign, but one I’m extremely cautious about was Sacramento’s lack of three point opportunities. The Kings only attempted 17 triples, making only 5, a huge relief for Bucks fans that have become so accustomed to watching threes rain down all game long. As mentioned in the preview for the game, the Kings attempt the least amount of three pointers in the league, so the positivity in this regard should be tamed for now, especially with Portland up next.
The joy of facing the Kings is all over for now, Portland are up next and they present a formidable opposition for the Bucks. Sitting at 13-8 and 4th in the Western Conference, the Blazers have started the season in red hot form. Boasting one of the leagues most lethal backcourts in Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum, both All-Star fancies, they possess some serious firepower. Lillard (25.7ppg) and McCollum (21.5ppg), average 13.5 three point attempts a game between them, so the Bucks new defensive scheme will be tested early and often, hopefully it can stand the heat.
This will be the second and final game of the season series between Milwaukee and Portland, the Bucks coming out on top 113-110 on October 22nd at the Bradley Center. Giannis went off that night for a career high 44 points on 17-23 shooting but he well and truly saved the most dramatic moments for the last minute.
With the Bucks up 110-109 and holding possession, Giannis was fouled with 31 seconds left on the clock. He was visibly upset as he missed both free throws, walking to the bench and pounding the chair as he contemplated his unfortunate errors. In a simply amazing response, Giannis hounded McCollum on the ensuing play, poking the ball away to Malcolm Brogdon who passed it back to Giannis for a thunderous jam and a 112-109 lead. But he wasn’t finished yet. With four seconds left on the clock, Jusuf Nurkic drove hard to the rim but was met by, you guessed it, Giannis. Nurkic had his shot swatted away and the game was over. One of the early MVP candidates finished this game on his own terms. It was a dominant and thrilling performance.
The Blazers come into this one in red hot form having won 7 of their last 9 contests, winning games by making threes on one end and stifling defense on the other. Portland hold the leagues 6th best three point percentage, knocking down 38.1 percent of their attempts, C.J McCollum leading the way, connecting on a scorching 48% of his attempts. It’s on the other end though that the Blazers are making life difficult for their opposition. Holding teams to only 98.8 points per game, the Blazers hold the leagues third best defense, only trailing the sensational Boston and San Antonio defensive units.
Another area where Milwaukee look to struggle in this one, not surprisingly, is the rebounding battle. Milwaukee still rank dead last with 38.6 boards a game and are facing the second best rebounding team in the league. Between Nurkic, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers posses a potent big man rotation that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. John Henson, Thon Maker and Joel Bolomboy have the challenge in front of them to get physical and not allow second chance opportunities for Portland. It will be a crucial and potentially deciding factor in the game.
A win is a win, and the Bucks sure needed one against the Kings but it will be all for nothing if the same trends of ineptitude resurface defensively tomorrow night. Credit where credit is due, I absolutely did not think Jason Kidd was capable of implementing change and it was fantastic to see. I now only hope that the Bucks stick with this scheme, one that actually stands a chance of being successful, and ride it out through the inevitable bumps that will come with it in its inception.
Portland are a really good team, they are playing at a high level in the seasons first quarter and a win is going to be a tough ask. But the Bucks are talented enough to beat anyone on any given night, though they will need to be competitive on the glass, adequate on defense and receive offensive contributions from players other then Giannis.
A .500 western road trip is always a result you’d take, a 3-1 road trip is one you would absolutely love. The task is in front of the Bucks. We’ll see how this plays out.
Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus.