The back-court tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis face off against Portland on Saturday. Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (20-19) Vs. Milwaukee Bucks (20-18)

The story on the Blazers right now is that a week ago they were winning close games and this week they’re losing them. I wrote about it my recap of Portland’s latest loss (Wednesday night at home against Kyrie Irving the Cleveland Cavaliers). My council was, and still is, to not get too bent out of shape about the Blazers’ recent losing streak.

At this point in 2012-13, Portland’s ceiling is probably 40-42 wins (that number goes down in anybody gets hurt and could go up if somehow Neil Olshey pulls some trade deadline magic and turns Nolan Smith and/or Luke Babbitt into a serviceable and playable asset). Forty-one wins is .500 and doesn’t get the Blazers into the Playoffs. Forty-six to 48 wins will probably be enough to get into the post-season. Getting to that number is a bit of a stretch for this team, though.

Losing to Cleveland (and OKC, Denver, and Golden State before that) was regressing to .500, where this team probably should be. And because regression works both ways, winning on Saturday against the Milwaukee Bucks would fit right into Portland’s statistical narrative. However, if you are unconvinced that the Blazers are in fact a .500 team, losing on Saturday (and losing more than winning just in general) is something to try and get used to considering at this point Portland has still won more games than they’ve lost.

Blazers Starting 5:PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson

Bucks Starting 5: PG Brandon Jennings, SG Monta Ellis, SF Ersan Illyasova, PF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, C Larry Sanders

The last time the Bucks played, the dealt a death blow to the Alvin Gentry era in Phoenix. The last two times Milwaukee has faced Portland, the Bucks were winners going away. The Blazers were on their way out both times; Milwaukee was fighting for the Playoffs that they would eventually miss.

The Bucks and the Blazers are just about in the same spots in their respective leagues (hanging around .500 and looking at the Playoffs). The primary differences are that Milwaukee has “parted ways” with its coach and could be heading toward a sell-off and rebuild (depending on how the next month or so shakes out), and Portland is overachieving and outpacing expectations. Not sure which place is better to be, although having come out of a sell-off and rebuild, from a fan’s perspective it’s much better to be on the upswing than on the down-slide.

Match-ups for Saturday aren’t going to be exactly like Wednesday’s (where one guy was basically all Portland needed to focus on), but playing 48 minutes against Kyrie Irving is about as good a preparation as a team can get for facing the back-court tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. If you split Kyrie into two players, you would probably get Jennings and Ellis. Monta is dangerous attacking on the pick and roll, and Jennings can, when rolling, basically hit from anywhere on the floor.

I’m all for throwing Damian Lillard on Brandon Jennings. He has to learn to play defense at some point, the sooner the better. That being said, taking a note out of Byron Scott’s playbook (and the playbook of every NBA head coach since Lillard showed that stopping him was the first step toward stopping the Blazers) and having Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum guard Ellis and Jennings might not be such a bad idea.

The downside to Wes and Nic defending over a position, of course, is that Lillard has to guard somebody. Ersan Illyasova is a shooter, as his replacement Mike Dunleavy Jr. Batum’s length is needed on those guys. Because of that, Wesley will likely take Monta, and Damian will be tasked with trying to slow down Brandon Jennings.

For my money, Lillard vs. Jennings will be the match-up to watch. Jennings isn’t Kyrie, not really even close, but he’s a good shooter and he’s supremely confident. There’s no doubt that he’ll see Dame as a target to take down, much the same way I’m sure Kyrie did and the rest of the young guards in the NBA have done/will do.

I know that Dame is not a great on-the-ball defender, but I believe he has the potential. The best we can hope for on Saturday, though, is that Jennings has a tough shooting night and doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. He can win games by himself, he can also lose them by himself.

As for Monta, he’s been a Blazer killer in the past, but in two games against Portland as a Buck, he hasn’t had that much of an impact. Milwaukee will put him in pick and rolls all night. The important thing for the Blazers will be to keep him out of the lane and off the free throw line. Like Jennings, Monta is a shooter. He’s not quite as reliable as Jennings, and for that reason, trying to limit him to long contested jump shots will be the way to go.

On this inside, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a lot like J.J. Hickson. He gets a ton of rebounds and scores almost entirely on busted plays. Larry Sanders is something of a revelation this season. His per game scoring average in 2012-13 is double what it was last season (even though by per 36-minute stats his improvement isn’t that stark considering that his minutes have also doubled), and he’s become a favorite among basketball Twitter. I don’t know a ton about Sanders, but I do know that the Blazers have thus far struggled against more traditional centers. Sanders went for 19 in Phoenix, which was a season high, and did almost all of his damage right in front of the rim.

Sanders isn’t on the same level as DeAndre Jordan or Nikola Pekovic, but if Portland gets too keyed in on Milwaukee’s back court, there’s a chance they’ll give up easy buckets inside. Easy buckets inside killed the Blazers on Wednesday (even if Kyrie mostly killed Portland on Wednesday with his scoring, there was plenty of residual damage done by Tristan Thompson being left unguarded on the hard double-team), and if they let Milwaukee get a lot of them, they will kill them again on Saturday.

What to Watch For

  • LaMarcus Aldridge. LA is on the short list of All-Star reserves. It doesn’t seem all that fair, considering an All-Star nod should be based on the whole first half of the season and not just a few games, but a reserve selection can be influenced one way or the other by the games immediately preceding the mid-season showcase. LaMarcus has played pretty well as of late. If he can finish the stretch leading up to next weeks reserve announcement, I think he’s in. That being said, he has to help Portland win. Having a winning record is a go-to for All-Star selection.
  • Will the Blazers get out to a fast start. Slow starts are wrecking Portland right now. Even two weeks ago, when they were winning close games, they were getting down early. If the Blazers can get out and attack the Bucks in the first quarter on Saturday, they’ll put themselves in a good spot to get a win. Slow starts are an issue that has been brought up, so expect Portland to actually address it.
  • The bench. The bench. The bench. One Portland reserve having a good game will win this one for the Blazers. And by a good night, I mean at least 10 points. Will Barton, I’m looking at you.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

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