Scorching stars clash when Blazers welcome Bucks to town

Big-time stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard will both be riding impressive hot streaks when they share the court on Monday night.

Antetokounmpo’s team also is the hottest in the NBA, and he will seek to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to their eighth straight victory when they visit the Portland Trail Blazers.

Antetokounmpo has flashed his two-time NBA MVP form during the winning streak, recording a double-double in each game while posting averages of 39.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He has outputs of 54 and 50 points and posted a triple-double with 35 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists in Saturday’s 123-115 home victory over the Miami Heat.

The triple-double was Antetokounmpo’s third of the season and 32nd of his career.

“He’s got to be willing to pass and play with his teammates, and we’ve got to make shots,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo. “I think he did that. It starts with him being aggressive, him drawing extra defenders. His teammates have got to make plays around him.”

The recent hot stretch has allowed the Bucks to move within one game of the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics.

Antetokounmpo scored 37 points when Milwaukee notched a 119-111 home victory over Portland on Nov. 21 for its 11th win in the past 13 games in the series. Lillard sat out that contest with a calf injury.

Lillard is fully healthy now and has scored at least 40 points four times over the past seven games, including a season-high 60 against the Utah Jazz on Jan. 25.

The Trail Blazers are 5-2 during that span despite dropping a 129-121 decision to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday. Lillard scored 40 points during the setback.

Lillard is averaging 40 points and has made 36 3-pointers during the seven-game stretch.

Portland appeared tired in the second half of the loss to the Bulls, a contest in which they squandered a 17-point advantage. The Trail Blazers had recovered from a 20-point deficit one night earlier while rallying for a 124-116 win over the Washington Wizards.

“I think it is a factor. You start to feel some fatigue,” Lillard said of playing a road back-to-back. “You have some mistakes and some breakdowns and stuff like that, and I think that’s probably something that comes from being out there back-to-back nights.”

Portland coach Chauncey Billups could see it, too. He felt his squad simply ran out of gas.

“I worried about that, but, man, we fought,” Billups said. “I’m proud of our dudes. We fought the whole game. We had our chances, still, just couldn’t get over the hump. I just knew that we were tired.”

The Trail Blazers entered Sunday in 11th place in the Western Conference with a key stretch arriving. Monday’s meeting is the first of five straight home games entering the All-Star break and among the opponents are the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers.

The Bucks will be the biggest test of the group with Antetokounmpo playing at a supreme level and sidekick Khris Middleton coming off a season-high, 24-point outing against the Heat.

Middleton has been limited to 14 games this season due to knee, wrist and ankle injuries. But he is averaging 19.3 points over the past three games while playing just 20 minutes in each contest.

“He’s just being himself,” Bucks guard Grayson Allen said of Middleton. “I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing. It’s pretty amazing. He’s putting up regular, average numbers coming off the bench with a minutes restriction right now. He’s killing it.”

Portland will be without center Jusuf Nurkic (calf) for the third straight game. He won’t return until after the All-Star break.

–Field Level Media