The Blazers wrap up an Eastern Conference road trip tonight in Milwaukee against the Bucks in the second half of a back-to-back.

Portland Trail Blazers (32-15, No. 4 in the West) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (24-22, No. 6 in the East)
Saturday, January 31
BMO Harris Bradley Center; Milwaukee, WI | 5:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, Nicolas Batum (game-time decision) | Out for the Bucks: Larry Sanders, Kendall Marshall, Jabari Parker, Damien Inglis, Ersan Ilyasova (day-to-day), Zaza Pachulia
SBN Affiliate: Brew Hoop Timmay’s Viewing Guide | Blazer’s Edge Night

The Blazers wrap up an Eastern Conference road trip tonight in Milwaukee against the Bucks, in the second half of a back-to-back after losing to the Hawks last night.

The Bucks are one of the surprising teams in the NBA this year, sporting a 24-22 record heading into tonight’s contest. After finishing dead-last in the league last year with a 15-67 record, Milwaukee was set to begin its rebuild around forward Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, with new coach Jason Kidd leading the way.

Since, Parker has been lost for the season to an ACL injury, center Larry Sanders has gone off the deep end and a group of versatile, young players has led the Bucks to the No. 6 seed in the East (so far).

Like Portland, Milwaukee has struggled through myriad injuries recently; Parker and guards Damien Inglis and Kendall Marshall have been lost for the year due to injury, while bigs Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia missed Thursday’s win over the Magic. Still, the Bucks manage to play together, and, spurred on by their aggressive defense, are making noise in the East even with a depleted roster.

The Bucks method of overplaying on defense and sending help from the weakside has allowed them to contest opponents’ shots consistently and make shooting difficult, particularly within the arc. They fly out toward the perimeter preventing easy three-pointers, and force a ton of turnovers with their energy. Milwaukee has the best transition defense in the NBA and defends the paint fairly well.

The turnovers the Bucks force jolt the offense, and they often get plenty of points of fastbreaks. They move the ball well, find open shots and draw plenty of fouls. Over the past five games, Milwaukee leads the entire league in not only field goal percentage, but also three-point shooting percentage, as well.

Point guard Brandon Knight — who many perceive as an All-Star snub this year — is solid as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, able to get to the rim and finish reliably, though his floater and jumper have not looked good lately. Over the past five games he’s hit just 38.6 percent of his shots, but he’s more than made up for that by canning half his three-pointers, of which he’s attempted 3.6 per game in that stretch. He’s a great passer and gets involved in the rebounding game, but sometimes struggles with turnovers, a team-wide issue.

Kidd employs a balanced offense, its top-five scorers averaging between 11.8 and 15.6 points per game the last five.

Guard Khris Middleton has hit two-thirds of both his overall field goals and three-pointers recently, scoring mostly off the pass. He splits his shots evenly between the paint, the midrange and the outside. Middleton loves the corner threes but is also good from the top of the key. Really, he’s been solid from pretty much everywhere on the floor lately.

Starting center John Henson and wing Jared Dudley begin games in the frontcourt alongside guard/forward/center Giannis Antetokounmpo. Henson’s hit 65.5 percent of his shots the last five games, with those coming almost exclusively in the key. Dudley started at power forward against Orlando on Thursday, nailing six of his 10 shots and three of his six threes, which is consistent with how well he’s been shooting lately. Antetokounmpo hasn’t shot well recently inside but has been decent with his jumper. He struggles with turnovers but leads the team in minutes per game the last couple weeks and is key in the Bucks’ ball movement.

Guard O.J. Mayo, largely a catch-and-shoot player, has come off the bench and hit 50 percent of his field goals the last five games and 40 percent of his threes. He can finish in the paint and has a reliable jumper, but he’s been killer from the corners, hitting half of his 14 attempts from either side the last couple weeks. Guard Jerryd Bayless can carry the offense at times and has been a great jumpshooter lately. Reserve forward Johnny O’Bryant is not a great shooter and commits plenty of fouls in limited minutes.

Recently, Milwaukee brought in 37-year-old big man Kenyon Martin on two 10-day contracts, then signed him late this week for the rest of the season. He played 22 minutes Thursday night against the Magic because of the Bucks dinged-up frontcourt, but will likely play fewer if either Pachulia or Ilyasova are good to go tonight. Martin rarely shoots and when he does, he’s not particularly accurate. Kidd also brought in backup point guard Jorge Gutierrez on a 10-day contract this week, but he only saw time against Orlando due to the blowout nature of the game and probably won’t get significant minutes tonight.

Similar to the Bucks, the Blazers come into tonight’s game with bumps and bruises up and down the roster; Bigs Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland are still out, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is playing through a torn ligament in his left thumb and wing Nicolas Batum is still dealing with a strained shooting wrist that occurred over a month ago against these very Bucks.

The Blazers dropped a heart-breaker last night in Atlanta, when the Hawks out-lasted them down the stretch after Portland took a small lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Bucks don’t move the ball quite as well or have the same off-ball movement and veteran heady play of Atlanta, but they whip the ball around and have a number of offensive weapons who can put the ball in the basket from multiple spots.

The defense of the Blazers, which has been pretty mediocre lately, will have to be turned up a notch to slow down Milwaukee. Portland has the No. 22 Defensive Rating in the NBA over the past five games and the lack of reliable depth is beginning to show, as the team has had a difficult time contesting shots consistently from both inside and outside of the arc recently.

Offensively, the Blazers have performed slightly better than on the defensive end, but most of that can be attributed to Aldridge, who’s averaged 33.7 points on 53.7 percent shooting in the three games since he returned from his initial thumb injury last week. Otherwise, the ball movement isn’t where it was early in the season and no starter besides Aldridge has shot better than 45.5 percent from the field with him back in the lineup.

Lillard, quite simply, can’t put the ball in the hole with any consistency right now. Since the win over the Wizards last Saturday, Lillard has made 28.8 percent of his shots and 24 percent of his three-pointers. He has supplemented his recent shooting slump with some good passing — he picked up 11 assists in Atlanta — but three turnovers a game since Aldridge came back have been an issue. Lillard is forcing shots right now and having a tough time finding clean looks. He did score 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a win over the Bucks back in mid-December.

Batum and guard Wesley Matthews combined to shoot 7-of-22 from the field and 4-for-12 from deep last night in Atlanta. Even with Aldridge’s 37-point effort against the Hawks — just two days after he dropped 38 on Cleveland in a loss — the Blazers were unable to attack consistently from anywhere else, and Batum and Matthews need to be better scoring options for the Blazers to win games, otherwise defenses will begin to focus down on Aldridge and Lillard even more. Milwaukee is young and its players fly around the perimeter on defense to contest shots, but good ball movement leads to open looks on the weakside. Batum and Matthews both need to be swinging the ball around and sticking their open shots tonight.

Kaman is putting in the effort offensively — sometimes a little too much when he has the ball — but he’s just been unable to really make much happen as a starter. He has a size advantage on every healthy frontcourt player for the Bucks, so he may be able to get some decent looks inside against them tonight or pop jumpers from the elbow, particularly when the 6-foot-11 Henson isn’t in the game.

Portland coach Terry Stotts opted to go with a nine-man rotation last night and left forward Thomas Robinson and guard CJ McCollum on the bench. Considering that tonight’s matchup is the second half of a back-to-back, they may see some action, but neither has really shot much when given the playing time recently. Forward Dorell Wright and center Meyers Leonard have shot well in limited attempts off the bench the last couple weeks, but Will Barton shot 1-for-4 in 13 minutes against Atlanta and hasn’t been able to create much even though he’s been moved up in Stotts’ rotation. Guard Steve Blake had one of his better games in recent memory last night, collecting eight points on 3-for-4 shooting — he went 2-for-3 from outside — while picking up seven assists.

Milwaukee is not a great rebounding team, especially with a thin frontcourt, and the Bucks really struggle on the defensive end, where the Blazers have actually done pretty well recently. Portland crushed the Bucks on the boards last time the two teams met, 52-32, pulling down 16 offensive rebounds. Robinson and Aldridge were both huge on the glass that game, netting 16 and 15 boards each, respectively. Tonight may be a good opportunity for Stotts to use Robinson’s rebounding energy to his advantage, especially if Dudley plays extended minutes at the four spot.

Aldridge can only do so much for the Blazers, as they’ve found out the last two losses in which the All-Star big man has scored a combined 75 points. Lillard, Matthews and Batum all are in shooting ruts right now that they need to break out of in order to help Portland win games and take some of the load off Aldridge’s back.

If the Blazers can use their advantage on the boards tonight like they did against Milwaukee back in December, when they were out-shot from the field, beyond the arc and from the free throw line but still got the 104-97 win, they’ll give themselves a chance to end this road trip on a good note.

— Chris Lucia | [email protected]Twitter

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