Brandon Jennings learned something from playing his idol last Tuesday night.
Kobe Bryant picked up Jennings defensively in the backcourt, 94 feet away from the basket. Knowing how much Bryant’s constant harassing defense impacted him, Jennings thought he’d give it a try.
Jennings set the defensive tone from the start Saturday night and also scored 30 points as the Milwaukee Bucks built a big lead and held off a furious comeback attempt by Portland in a 110-104 victory.
The win gave the Bucks a 3-1 record on their longest road trip of the season and marked the first time since 2001 that Milwaukee finished a trip of four or more games with a winning record. Five days before All-Star reserves are named, Jennings put his best foot forward against the Trail Blazers. His early energy sparked Milwaukee on a 17-0 run in the first quarter to build a 30-12 lead.
He added eight assists and scored his 30 points on 9 of 20 shooting, making 12 of 15 free throws. The only negative was that his streak of consecutive games with a made three-pointer ended at 26.
“From the opening tip, Brandon came out and established himself at the defensive end,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “When he does that, he’s a heckuva player.
“I think he showed tonight where he belongs. That was an All-Star performance right there. Doing it in every facet of the game and did it for 48 minutes.”
The game plan against the Trail Blazers called for Jennings or whomever was guarding star rookie point guard Damian Lillard to make him feel the pressure.
Jennings’ speed and quickness allowed him to stay in front of Lillard without fouling while he used his quick hands to cause problems.
“We wanted to put pressure on them and keep the pressure on them,” Boylan said. “Damian is a very, very good young point guard, and he’s going to be a great player in this league. If you play soft on him, he’ll kill you.
“The idea for us was to just stay into him and not let him feel comfortable at all. Brandon did a great job, as did our bigs who were showing out on the pick and rolls.”
Leading by 17 at the half, the Bucks grew their lead out to 77-55 on a three-pointer from Ersan Ilyasova – who scored a season-high 27 points and grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds – with 5:13 remaining in the third quarter.
Milwaukee led by 21 when Portland caught fire and went on an 11-0 run to make it 80-70. The Trail Blazers closed the quarter on a 17-4 run and the Bucks only led by eight heading to the fourth quarter.
The Bucks then built the lead to 104-88 on a Jennings three-point play with 3:45 left in the game, but a Wesley Matthews run capped a 12-0 run by Portland and Milwaukee led by only four with 44 seconds to play.
In the end, the Bucks were able to hold on, but not before many anxious moments.
“It’s an NBA game and the other team is going to make plays,” Boylan said. “They were playing at home and were hungry for a win. We could have closed out better, but when we needed to we made the plays and got the rebounds and got the stops.”
One of the reasons Portland was able to fight back in the game twice was the absence of Bucks center Larry Sanders. Angry about not getting fouls called while he was on offense, Sanders exploded after a foul call on Ilyasova.
He immediately was hit with a technical foul by referee Dan Crawford, and despite the efforts of Mike Dunleavy to calm him down, Sanders kept at it and was ejected with 3:08 left in the third quarter. Portland center LaMarcus Aldridge scored 10 of his 20 points after Sanders was run from the game.
“LaMarcus was then around the basket and a lot of those shots Larry alters or contests or blocks,” Boylan said. ” … When we lost him it put a strain on us and they were able to take advantage of it.”
Though it was the first winning trip of more than four games in nearly 12 years for the Bucks, it also was just their sixth winning trip ever through to the West Coast. Not counting the Toronto game last Sunday, Milwaukee went 2-1 in the western portion of its trip.
“It was a really great trip for us, except we should have won the game in LA,” Ilyasova said. “Overall, we will look at the trip as a helluva trip for us.
“We have a lot of games in front of us and we have to play at the same pace as we did tonight.”