For the second time in less than a week, I made the rainy trip down I-5 to watch the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden as they faced the Milwaukee Bucks. The main draw, as you might guess, was my first chance (and only one this season) to see Brandon Jennings in person. We'll tackle that in a feature on Friday, but for now here are five other observations from Portland's 120-108 victory that wasn't as close as the final score made it appear.
1. The Portland Offense: Three-Quarters of the Time, it Works Every Time
For the first 35 minutes and 30 seconds of last night's game, the Blazers were about as efficient as you'll ever see on offense. To that point, Portland had scored 97 points on approximately 61 possessions--good for an Offensive Rating of 159.3. Then, the Blazers were struck by what you might call "The Curse of the Chalupas" (a phrase I can honestly say has never before been written on the Internet), going nine possessions and over four minutes while scoring just one point before reaching the magical 100-point mark that earns their fans free Taco Bell. Milwaukee rallied from down 33 to as close as 11 to make things interesting before Portland finished out the win.
The Blazers did struggle against the pressure offered by the Bucks, their first sign of defensive resistance all night, but the previous three quarters were more telling as far as the story of the game. What I liked from Portland was the way the Blazers utilized all their offensive weapons, which has been a struggle at times this season. Brandon Roy was highly efficient again, scoring 22 points on 13 shooting possessions, but Portland mixed in Andre Miller in the post against an overmatched Brandon Jennings, went to LaMarcus Aldridge repeatedly and even got excellent first-half production from the bench. The Blazers also did a really nice job of something subtle that coaches like to emphasize--using the width of the floor. With crisp cross-court passing, they spread out the Milwaukee defense to create open looks, especially during the second quarter.
2. Assertive Meeks
The bright spot of the game for the Bucks was the performance of rookie shooting guard Jodie Meeks, who scored a career-high 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting. With Michael Redd done for the season after tearing his ACL and MCL on Sunday, Meeks' scoring punch will be more important for Milwaukee going forward. Largely because he's attempting half of his shots from beyond the arc and making them at just a 30.2 percent clip, Meeks has been inconsistent at best this season. But the scoring ability that allowed him to put up a Kentucky-record 54 points in a game last season makes him stand out from the rest of the Bucks' remaining wings, who are complementary options on offense. Meeks growing into a bigger threat might be Milwaukee's best hope of upgrading an offense that ranks 25th in the NBA on a per-possession basis this season. I liked the job he did of attacking the basket off the dribble in this game, though indifferent defense from Jerryd Bayless certainly worked to Meeks' advantage in the first half.
3. Defensive Mismatch
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is one of the league's best young defenders, and earlier this week Kevin Durant said on Twitter that Mbah a Moute and Ron Artest were the two best defensive players he'd faced. (If you saw Mbah a Moute draped all over Durant in the closing possessions of the Bucks' overtime win over Oklahoma City earlier this month, you'd be inclined to agree.) Roy is a very different defensive matchup, and while Mbah a Moute moves his feet tremendously well for someone who played power forward in college, the shorter, more agile Roy proved too challenging. Mbah a Moute played just over 16 minutes. In that span, Roy scored 16 of his 22 points, making six of his seven shot attempts. Roy was able to get by Mbah a Moute and draw fouls as well as beating him badly on one backdoor cut when the Bucks forward overplayed. In short, it was a clinic by Roy, and Scott Skiles might want to rethink using Mbah a Moute to defend guards.
4. Sharpshooting Ilyasova
NBA League Pass viewers tuned in for Brandon Jennings' heroics, but they stayed for Ersan Ilyasova. The Turkish forward, in his second stint with the Bucks, clearly made great strides as a player during his two-year trip back to Europe. The new Ilyasova has developed into a useful stretch four who can rebound. The Blazers decided to make Ilyasova beat them, bringing his defender over to help out on Jennings-Andrew Bogut pick-and-rolls. This was one of McMillan's few strategic decisions that did not work in the game, because while Jennings and Bogut were quiet, Ilyasova knocked down four three-pointers in six attempts and tied his own career high by scoring 24 points. Ilyasova wasn't as impressive at the other end of the floor, struggling to contain Aldridge, but it is still clear that he can be a core piece for Milwaukee going forward.
5. Shaking off the Rust
The Blazers got good news on the injury front with the return of Rudy Fernandez, who came back slightly ahead of schedule from back surgery. Fernandez got an enormous ovation from the Rose Garden fans, who adore the Spaniard, but after quickly scoring his first bucket he looked very much like a player who last played on Dec. 1. More of an issue than the four three-pointers Fernandez missed were the shots he passed up. On more than one occasion, fans were buzzing when Fernandez got the ball beyond the arc, but he threw them off by hesitating and looking to move the basketball. It may take a couple of games for Fernandez to get back in rhythm, especially since he's had limited live practice time. Fortunately for Portland, it didn't have much impact on the game.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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