PORTLAND – LaMarcus Aldridge gathered to his feet, his palms extended up and his eyes searching for an explanation. But he knew one wasn’t coming on Saturday night.
There was nothing to explain why the Trail Blazers fell through a trap door so early in their 110-104 loss against the Milwaukee Bucks. No justification why lethargy defined a half but a revitalized effort materialized in the fourth quarter, teasing a sold-out Rose Garden Arena when Aldridge made his cut towards the block to catch Nicolas Batum’s inbounds pass with 33.6 seconds left.
At the moment, the Blazers — their huge deficit now just sliced to four points — needed to make a simple inbounds pass. However, Aldridge got tangled up with Bucks’ reserve forward Ekpe Udoh. Aldridge dropped to the ground as Batum sent the pass his way. Aldridge said Udoh stepped on his foot, his coach thought so, too. However, the officials did not agree and their whistles remained silent and with the 6-foot-11 target helpless on the court, the ball sailed out of bounds.
“I was trying to grab the ball, I couldn’t,” Aldridge explained. “They didn’t call it. I think that was a bad call.”
Aldridge looked for referee Danny Crawford but did not argue demonstratively – and why should he, Aldridge would grumble later in the locker room. Crawford’s explanation wouldn’t change the outcome. So now the Blazers (20-20) have more questions than answers as the team has dropped five straight games.
“We had a good start in January, we played pretty good, played good basketball,” said Batum, who scored seven points on 2-of-9 shooting but complained of a sore right wrist. “And now we – I don’t know why, we started relaxing a little bit and didn't play like the way we played the previous two weeks."
“We got to get back quickly to the way we were before.”
Brandon Jennings scored a game-high 30 points but the Bucks also got a standout performance from Ersan Ilyasova who scored 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
Wesley Matthews led the Blazers with 21 points – he drilled a 3-pointer with 44.9 remaining to pull Portland within 104-100. Aldridge also chipped in 20 points and 14 rebounds, but the lasting number will be five, signifying the current winless streak.
The Blazers had a pair of four-game losing streaks before December. Each time, a well-timed performance ended the staleness – all five starters scoring in double figures in Sacramento on Nov. 13 then the gutsy double-overtime win in Cleveland on Dec. 1. If Portland could’ve stuck to the script, then Saturday night against the Bucks would have been another breakthrough. Instead, the team left the company of 20,487 fans mired in its longest winless stretch of the season.
“The game got away from us at the end of the first quarter, that was a bad stretch for us. But the second quarter,” coach Terry Stotts said, “wasn’t much better.”
Backup point guard Nolan Smith entered the game for Damian Lillard with 5:09 remaining in the first quarter and at that point, the Blazers trailed 13-12. However, just 19 seconds into Smith’s shift at the point, the game took a wrong turn.
Smith could not initiate the offense, losing the ball in double-team traps. The Milwaukee guards, Jennings, Monta Ellis and even Udoh, feasted on Smith’s weak ball handing and ripped him for steals.
“Just got to take care of the ball,” Smith said.
The final insult — Ellis taking away Smith’s third turnover in just his third minute on the floor — capped a Milwaukee 17-0 run.
Smith left the game at the 2:31 mark and never returned.
Same goes for the Blazers defense in the first half.
Milwaukee may have the quickest backcourt in the league but it wasn’t simply speed and pace hurting the Blazers. Ilyasova nailed both 3-point attempts and reserve Mike Dunleavy came off the bench and also hit a pair beyond the arc.
The Bucks also ruled the paint, shot over 53 percent from the floor and scored 62 points in the first half.
Stotts described the second half as “Groundhog Day,” referring to the team’s knack for scrapping its way back into games. The Blazers outscored Milwaukee 31-22 in the third quarter. They started the final frame down eight points, watched as the lead ballooned to 15 then remembered, oh yeah, it's time to do what they've done all season: fight back.
Aldridge ripped off eight points before Lillard's pull-up 3-point shot with 1:41 remaining. Milwaukee's Ellis misfired on his response from beyond the arc then Matthews drilled his first triple of the game - he finished 1 for 8 - and the score was 104-100. The next Blazer play, however, would end in a chorus of boos with Aldridge too upset to pitch any sort of argument when no call was made.
The Blazers have now played nine straight games decided by six points or less, the longest streak in franchise history. And, arguably, one of the most perplexing streaks, too. Portland won the first four close ones, but for the fifth straight game, a Blazer comeback returned void.
“We definitely had a trend of that lately, we’ll have to figure out how to shake it,” Aldridge said. “We always start a little slow and we always find a way to come back. If we have better starts, then we wouldn’t have to fight so hard to come back.”