MILWAUKEE — Jim Boylan didn’t hold any punches when it came to his team’s defense after Sunday afternoon’s game.
His team responded Tuesday night – for one half, at least.
The Milwaukee Bucks turned up the defensive intensity for the first half and held Portland to eight second quarter points to build a 27-point halftime lead. Things loosened up in the second half and the Blazers made a furious charge, but the Bucks held on for a 102-95 victory.
“I thought the first half we had it going on both ends of the floor,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “Our defense was really active. What we did in the first half is we contested just about every shot. Any look that they got, we were there with a hand up. That’s a big key to having a successful defense, is to contest shots.”
The Bucks chart contested shots and would like to contest 75 percent of opponent’s shots and have recently had games in the 60’s and 50’s.
“That’s what we’ve been preaching over the last couple of days, to try and get that number back up,” Boylan said.
The second half was an entirely different story. Portland outscored the Bucks 64-44 and had it down to seven late in the fourth quarter. While it didn’t hurt Milwaukee in the loss column Tuesday, it could hurt Wednesday when the Bucks face a rested Atlanta team on the road.
An ideal situation would have had Milwaukee’s regulars on the bench for most of the fourth quarter, resting up for a Hawks team that sits just 2 1/2 games ahead of the Bucks in the standings. Entering the fourth quarter with a 20-point lead, the Bucks were just a short little run away from emptying the bench.
Each time it appeared as if Boylan could turn to the backups, Portland would hit a 3-pointer. Led by Wesley Matthews’ game-high 28 points and seven 3-pointers, the Trail Blazers hit 7 of 10 3-pointers in the fourth quarter.
“It was better than the last game, but that’s something we have to pick up,” Bucks guard Monta Ellis said of the defense. “Tonight hopefully we can build off of and continue to play like (the first half) for the rest of the season.”
The Bucks entered Tuesday allowing 108.9 points per game in their last 10 games. Boylan sent a message to his team after beating Orlando on Sunday, saying his team had to pick it up on the defensive end if it was going to be a serious team.
While giving up 38 points in the fourth quarter certainly taints what could have been a good defensive effort, Tuesday night was certainly a step in the right direction.
“I think our rotations were much better, more crisp,” Bucks center Samuel Dalembert said. “I think defensively when we have each other’s back, make them move the ball and make them rush their shots (we are good defensively).”
Dalembert got the start for the injured Ersan Ilyasova and scored 16 points with seven rebounds. He admitted after the game that it’s been tough to watch his team struggle defensively from the bench.
“Watching the game from the bench, you get frustrated,” Dalembert said. “Sometimes when Larry (Sanders) is not in to protect the basket, I feel like we are vulnerable inside. There’s no defensive presence, we’re small and they are getting rebounds over us.”
“As a player, I’m frustrated. I want to go out there and give a boost. I just think if we trust each other defensively and we are there for each other we can surprise ourselves.”
Instead of resting up for the first of two crucial games with the Hawks this week, Ellis played 43 minutes, Brandon Jennings was out there for 39 minutes and Sanders logged 40.
If the Bucks are unable to muster enough energy Wednesday, they only have themselves to blame. Milwaukee could have, and probably should have, put Portland away much quicker than it did.
But the Bucks had to win Tuesday before they could focus on the showdown with Atlanta.
“It’s a big game for us,” Ellis said. “They are right in the spot where we want to get. It’s going to be tough but if we come out with the right mindset the way we did tonight, it’s going to be a great game (Wednesday).”
Avoiding a scare: X-rays were negative on Ellis’ left wrist after Matthews hit his wrist on a steal with 4:40 left in the game.
Ellis stayed in the game until the game was in hand and said he will play against Atlanta on Wednesday. He finished with 21 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a career-high three blocks.