PORTLAND, Oregon — The Portland Trail Blazers feel they have been overlooked again as usual by prognosticators picking the NBA’s Western Conference race. They’ll have an early-season opportunity to display their prowess against a contender from the East when the Milwaukee Bucks visit for a Tuesday night date at Moda Center.
The Bucks (8-1), fresh off a 144-109 rout of Sacramento at home on Sunday, begin a difficult four-game road trip against the Blazers, who are mindful they will be facing a Most Valuable Player candidate in Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“The Bucks have been playing at a very high level, and he is their best player, with size and agility and a lot of ability,” said Portland forward Al-Farouq Aminu, the likely choice to begin the game defending Antetokounmpo. “He creates mismatch problems. He is doing a lot of things right out there.”
It’s not a one-man show, however. Milwaukee has evolved into a team that can burn opponents from the perimeter. The Bucks set a franchise record for most 3-pointers made in a game, sinking 22 of 56 attempts in the pasting of the Kings. Ten different players hit at least one 3 in the victory.
But the bell cow is the 6-11 Antetokounmpo, who notched the 11th triple-double of his career with 26 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists against Sacramento.
“He is right up at the top on the list of the league’s best players,” Portland point guard Damian Lillard said. “I don’t think you can argue with that, with how hard he works, with how his body looks now compared to how it looked when he first came into the league, with how his game has grown. He has taken command of that team. He is their guy.
“Now they have shooters around him and they’re making 3’s. They’re tough to deal with. They’re one of the top teams in the league, because of his growth and his improvement. For us, this will be an opportunity to show (opponents) that, when they come in here, they have to earn it. We’re ready for a tough game.”
Portland (7-3) will likely use several different players to guard Antetokounmpo through the time he is on the floor. The “Greek Freak” won’t waste any time worrying about it.
“Whatever ‘big’ tries to guard me … I’m trying to play with him, because I feel like I’m faster than them, stronger than them,” Antetokoumpo told reporters after the Kings game. “So I’m going to try to make a play for myself or my teammates. That’s something I’ve figured out that I have to do more this season.”
The Bucks know there will be some serious challenges on their upcoming trip.
“Portland is tough, Golden State is going to be tough, the Clippers are good, the Nuggets are playing very well,” reserve forward John Henson said. “It’s going to be gut-check time. The goal on the road is to come out with more wins than losses. If we can do that, we’ll be fine.”
Do the Blazers consider this a big game?
“They’re all big,” Aminu said. “We’ll approach this one like we do all of them. But this is a good test. We’re going to find out some things about us when we play Milwaukee.”