The Behind the Buck Pass answers a four-pack of questions heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
1. At 9-2, Portland is the league’s third-best team record-wise behind Indiana and San Antonio (both 9-1). However, their schedule has been relatively soft thus far with wins against Boston, Toronto, shorthanded Brooklyn, Detroit, Denver, Sacramento (twice) and Phoenix. Is this early-season success sustainable, or do you expect them to regress as the season progresses?
Paul DeBruine: To some degree their schedule has to be factored in considering they have only faced teams with a winning record in two of the eleven games they have played this season. But this team is talented and is a legit threat to snag the fourth or fifth seed in the West. They have the underappreciated but stellar LaMarcus Aldridge and up and last season’s Rookie of the Year in Damian Lillard. The rest of their starting five plays good defense and they fixed their abysmal bench from last season by adding Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, and Dorell Wright. This team is definitely for real, but a realistic expectation is probably a 48-win team.
Mitchell Brachmann: Although I don’t see Portland finishing as the second best-team in the West, I don’t think it’s particularly far-fetched to imagine the Blazers envisioning themselves as the fifth-best team in the conference. After the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, and Warriors, I feel as comfortable trusting Portland to win as I do the Rockets. They have an established big in LaMarcus Aldridge, a creative, young guard in Lillard, and an arsenal of shooters to space the floor and give room to Aldridge to create. Throw in what might be the blossoming of Frenchman Batum, and the Blazers could be a team that causes a nuisance in the Western conference.
Henry Russo: The Blazers soft schedule has given them a chance to hang atop the league with the big boys, but as the season wears on the Blazers will be brought back down to Earth. However, that means a middle of the pack seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Though their schedule has been relatively weak the Blazers’ young stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard have stayed healthy which might be a better indicator of why they own a 9-2 record.
Nick Whalen: Certainly, the pace at which Portland is winning games is not sustainable, but I think this team has made major strides. It’s pretty incredible what having any sort of bench whatsoever can do for a team that ranked last in the league (by far) in reserve scoring last season. After tonight, though, is when we’ll find out if this team is for real, as five of Portland’s next seven games are against Chicago, Golden State, New York, Indiana and Oklahoma City.
2. The Blazers allow the most points in the paint in the league at a whopping 47.8 per game. Meanwhile, the Bucks rank 27th in points in the paint, scoring just 36.0 per game. Something has to give here: Do you see Milwaukee taking advantage of Portland’s soft interior defense, or will the Blazers capitalize on the Bucks’ lack of offensive-minded big men?
DeBruine: One would hope that the Bucks can manage to score some points in the paint this game, but I remain doubtful. None of their guards are good at finishing at the rim and none of their big men have that much of a postgame to speak of at this point. As is always with the Bucks, if they win this game it will most likely be on the wings of 3-point shooting.
Brachmann: I just can’t imagine a scenario where the Bucks are able to take advantage of Portland’s suspect interior defense. Pachulia is really the only big on the roster who really operates on the block; Henson is too raw to be a dependable scoring option. However, if Mayo begins slashing and attacking the hoop, the Bucks might find themselves open shots in the corner.
Russo: So the Blazers might give up the most points in the paint in the league but the Bucks do not have the offensive talent inside to take advantage of this. Nobody is confusing Zaza Pachulia with a legitimate post presence. If the Bucks win this game it will be because of good outside shooting and strong guard play.
Whalen: Much of the blame for Milwaukee’s frontcourt woes has been lobbed at Larry Sanders, but is it really his fault? He’s never averaged double-figures and shot a paltry 26.9 percent from 3-9 feet last season and just 65.4 percent at the rim (barely above the league average). Larry’s absence isn’t the issue. It’s the Bucks’ heavy reliance on jump shots from Mayo, Neal and Butler and the relative inability of any big man other than John Henson to consistently convert inside. Portland’s interior defense is bad, but Milwaukee’s interior offense is worse.
3. Pick it: Who comes out on top tonight?
DeBruine: The Bucks will get Ilyasova and Butler back, but I don’t see them being able to handle Aldridge this game. With one of the best 18-foot midrange jumpers and a good low post game I see him dominating this game. The Blazers have a good size at every position, which should bother Milwaukee’s shooters and lead to a Portland win.
Brachmann: Portland is the hottest team in the NBA right now and with each passing game, it looks like John Hammond’s yearly goal of competing for the 8 seed will be unlikely. I think the game will be closer than what might think—Mayo should match up well against Lillard, and Henson with Aldridge—but the Blazers are simply too deep to throw away a game against Milwaukee.
Russo: Even though the game will be close the Blazers will once again beat a bottom-of-the-league team. The Bucks will fall 101-96.
Whalen: Even with Ilyasova and Butler back in the lineup, Portland should have no trouble sending the Bucks careening to their sixth consecutive loss. Damian Lillard will give Mayo/Ridnour/Wolters fits, while LaMarcus Aldridge’s superior mid-range game will pull defenders away from the basket, opening up driving lanes for the Blazers’ quick guards.
4. Extra Credit: The Bucks are rolling out the first of four rounds of free shirts for certain seating areas tonight. What are your thoughts?
DeBruine: Tonight’s t-shirt is actually okay compared to what most teams give out. Like ironic college student in me likes the 70’s style. I’d probably wear it.
Brachmann: Those are heinous. The Bucks could probably wear them if they were scheduled on Christmas this year, though.
Russo: I like my shirts how I like my beer…free. Tonight’s giveaway shirts are great!
Whalen: A free shirt is a free shirt in my book, and they will probably draw a few extra stragglers to the arena, so I’m all for it. They’re actually doing both a men’s and women’s design, and I have to say I’m partial to the latter. Sue me.