7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bucks -5.0, Over/Under: 240.0
Division rivals jockeying for position at the top of the East clash tonight in the Windy City, as the reigning NBA Champion, Milwaukee Bucks battle the reborn Chicago Bulls, from United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Though the East may be as wide-open as it has in quite a while after the Trade Deadline, yet there remains growing sentiment that the Bucks (38-25, 4th in Eastern Conference) remain the favorites to come out of the field as victors. After winning their first Larry O’Brien trophy in fifty years, there was a feeling that Milwaukee had all the makings of going on a prolonged run and following a slow start to their title defense they have certainly rounded into championship form. Stumbling out of the gates to a 6-8 record was understandable for a team that was clearly fatigued following their run to the Finals (which ended in late July BTW), only for their top three performers, (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.3 PTS, 54.3% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 73.0% FT, 11.5 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 32.2 PER) along with (All-Stars) Khris Middleton (19.6 PTS, 43.8% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 88.6% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.1 PER) and Jrue Holiday (18.3 PTS, 50.8% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 75.8% FT, 4.7 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.1 PER) to immediately hop on a plane to compete in the Summer Olympics, altogether leading to a second consecutive abridged offseason. As a result, this triumvirate hasn’t enjoyed much time together on the hardwood thus far; Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday have featured together in just thirty-two of their sixty-three games and is still just the sixth-most utilized three-man combination that (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer has relied upon; the trio has logged 551:47 of gametime thus far, with the team +12.1 in points, +.065 in field goal percentage, +3.8 in rebounding, and +1.5 in assists when they are on the court together. Granted, the Bucks are 24-8 when they are all healthy, which has been the case of late, with the three competing in thirteen of their last fourteen contests, a period in which they’ve gone 8-5. However, while the supporting cast has certainly handled themselves in the absence of their stars, many of their number have begun to succumb to injuries, which meant that Budenholzer and (General Manager) Jon Horst went to work at the Trade Deadline in search of reinforcements. First and foremost, the Bucks needed more size and shooting in the frontcourt after (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (8.0 PTS, 33.3% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.0 STL, 3.0 BLK, 11.7 PER) underwent back surgery in early December, which was a sentiment that was only made more imperative once (young Forward) Pat Connaughton (10.1 PTS, 46.7% FG, 81.1% FT, 4.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.6 PER) bit the dust in last month’s Finals rematch with the Suns with a sprained knee. Furthermore, (sparkplug Guard) Grayson Allen (11.4 PTS, 43.0% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 84.7% FT, 3.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.9 PER) has been limited with a sore hip for a few weeks now, while (veteran Guard) George Hill (7.0 PTS, 43.6% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 96.0% FT, 3.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.0 PER) has missed each of the last eight outings with a neck strain. Simply put, Budenholzer’s depth has been severely taxed of late, which was very apparent on the defensive end of the hardwood, where they simply haven’t been as good as they have in previous years; Milwaukee has allowed 110.2 points per game (16th Overall), with an effective field goal percentage allowed of 52.6% (15th Overall) and a turnover percentage of 11.8% (23rd Overall). So, what did Milwaukee come up with at the Trade Deadline, you ask? Budenholzer and Horst dealt away (young Swingman) Donte DiVincenzo, who had been struggling to return to form following surgery last Summer, along with (veteran Guard) Rodney Hood and (backup Forward) Semi Ojeleye in a four-time trade with the Raptors, Kings, and Clippers, netting (veteran Forward) Serge Ibaka (5.7 PTS, 48.3% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 5.8 REB, 0.7 AST, 8.2 PER). Despite struggling with injuries over the last three years (69 games missed), the 32-year-old Ibaka’s rim defense and perimeter shooting project as a perfect fit for Budenholzer’s system, while also bringing a wealth of postseason experience to Milwaukee, including a championship ring earned as member of the Raptors back in 2019. Ibaka has featured in just thirty-five games for Los Angeles this season, making only ten starts en route to amassing career-lows in a slew of categories including minutes (16.0), rebounds (4.4), steals (0.2), and blocks (0.7). In six games since arriving in East Wisconsin, Ibaka has yet to make much of an impact, with averages of 5.7 points on 48.3% shooting and 5.8 rebounds in 21.3 minutes of action. On the bright side, (versatile Forward) Bobby Portis (15.7 PTS, 48.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 74.0% FT, 9.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 18.7 PER) has absolutely flourished in his second season with the Bucks, becoming more of a force in the Lopez’s absence. The oft-traveled 27-year-old found a home in Budenholzer’s system last year and played an understated role in their march to a championship last summer. At 6′-10″, Portis has the length and physicality to defend the rim, while also being able to stretch the floor from the perimeter, which is critical when it comes to creating valuable space for Antetokounmpo, leading to a career campaign of 15.7 points and 9.1 rebounds in 28.9 minutes a night. Now he gets another opportunity to face the team that drafted him back in 2015, the Bulls, who traded him midway through his third season after getting into a physical altercation with a teammate.
When we last saw the Bucks, they locked horns with the top seed in the East, the Heat, earning a narrow 120-119 victory at Fiserv Forum, tying the season series between the two bitter rivals. Of course, Miami was the architect of their misery two years ago, upsetting top-seeded Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the Bubble, which forced Budenholzer & Co to do some serious soul searching in the offseason. Less than a year later, they would meet again in the First Round of the 2021 Playoffs, with the deer enacting sweet revenge in a four-game sweep. Having lost two of their three previous meetings with them this season, the hosts set out to make a statement in lieu of the postseason, where these sides could very well cross paths again. Though both teams led by double-digits at various points of the contest, the outcome would come down to the wire thanks to a furious late rally from the Bucks, who trailed 113-99 midway through the fourth quarter. With six minutes left to play, Milwaukee ended the game on a 21-6 run with Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton each making huge plays down the stretch, scoring all but three of those twenty-one points. Giannis got the rally started with a dunk and a lay-up, along with a quartet of clutch free-throws, while Holiday drained a trifecta of cold-blooded jumpers, including the game-winner from seven feet out. In the end, Budenholzer’s troops shot 45.1% from the field, including 14-of-36 from beyond the arc (38.9%), along with 24-of-27 from the charity stripe (88.9%), winning the battle of the boards (52-48), while dishing out twenty-two assists in comparison to committing just twelve turnovers. Furthermore, though the Heat held a significant advantage from the perimeter (+21), the deer managed to negate that at the stripe (+14), while utterly annihilating them in transition (+17), largely induced by their twenty-one points off of turnovers. The home side’s big three really carried their weight in this one, combining for seventy-nine of their 120 points, with the Greek Freak leading the way with twenty-eight points, seventeen rebounds, five assists, a pair of steals, and a block, while Middleton and Holiday sank a cumulative 7-of-16 from downtown (43.7%), with the latter handing out eleven dimes. That victory pulled them within 3.5 games of first place in the crowded East, which is currently good for fourth in the conference’s pecking order. The Bucks trail the Bulls by one game in the standings, having met their Central Division brethren just once thus far, though these teams will become very acquainted with each other over the next month, with three encounters scheduled between tonight and April 5th.
Meanwhile, though this season has seen the resurgence of the Bulls (39-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference), who are on the verge of putting four years of ineptitude behind them, this is a team that is really being tested by a number of injuries that appear to finally be taking their toll. After going a dreadful 71-158 (.310) from 2017-2018 to 2019-2020, enough was indeed enough for one the NBA’s proudest franchises, as ownership hit the reset button and hired (General Manager) Arturas Karnisovas, who in turn pried (Head Coach) Billy Donovan away from the Thunder, leading to a hopeful 31-41 campaign that would lay the groundwork for what this group would become a year later. Though they ultimately missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, there was plenty to like about the Bulls; (All-Star Swingman) Zach LaVine (24.5 PTS, 48.2% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 87.1% FT, 4.8 REB, 4.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 20.2 PER) had blossomed into a prolific offensive force on the wing, while the trade that netted (All-Star Center) Nikola Vucevic (17.9 PTS, 47.1% FG, 30.5% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 11.6 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.1 BLK, 18.7 PER) paired him with an all-around talent in the paint. This past summer, Karnisovas and Donovan took it one step further with the additions of (All-Star Guard) DeMar DeRozan (28.1 PTS, 51.5% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 86.4% FT, 5.3 REB, 5.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 24.5 PER), and (unselfish Point Guard) Lonzo Ball (13.0 PTS, 42.3% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 14.7 PER), alongside (defensive stopper) Alex Caruso (8.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 81.4% FT, 3.9 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.9 STL, 13.9 PER) bringing further balance and dynamism to a completely renovated rotation that has placed this group among the elite in the Eastern Conference. While none of those names may grab your attention in the manner of a Giannis or Durant or Embiid, the fact of the matter is that with Donovan pulling the strings Chicago’s rotation has proven greater than the sum of its parts. And with that said, who says that they don’t have an MVP candidate? One of the most underrated storylines of this season has been the rebirth of DeRozan in the Windy City, where the 32-year-old has made a seismic impact. For years the book on the five-time All-Star was that he was a throwback whose game simply didn’t translate to where the NBA was headed, essentially a volume scorer at the two who was unwilling to shoot from downtown and even less effective when he did so. Watching his former franchise, the Raptors, hoist a Larry O’Brien trophy immediately after trading hm away certainly didn’t help how he was viewed, and spending the last three years in San Antonio removed him from the radar of many. However, working with the venerable Gregg Popovich was arguably the best thing that ever happened to him, and it’s clear that he took those lessons with him to Chicago, where he has inserted himself in the discussion for Most Valuable Player; the definition of a late bloomer, DeRozan has posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including scoring (28.1) and yes, even three-point percentage (35.5%). Furthermore, he entered the All-Star Break in rare form, becoming the first player since WILT CHAMBERLAIN to average 30+ points, 5+ rebounds, and 5+ assists while shooting over 55.0% from the field during an eight-game stretch. Hey, anytime your name is mentioned alongside Wilt’s, you’re doing big things, right? Credit also goes to Donovan and his coaching staff for finding a way to tailor their system to his unique skillset and not vice versa, for the Bulls have been one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the league as a result. On the season they’re averaging 112.5 points per game (8th Overall) on a league-best 48.4% shooting from the field (1st Overall) and 37.6% from beyond the arc (1st Overall), while also ranking in the top-eight in effective field goal percentage (54.8%), turnover percentage (11.9%), and free-throw/field goal attempt ratio (19.7%). Making those numbers all the more impressive is that they’ve remained largely consistent despite the likes of LaVine, Ball, ad Caruso missing a wealth of time due to various maladies. LaVine missed twelve games with a bulky knee and if we’re being honest still looks to be nursing it of late, while Ball and Caruso haven’t featured in well over a month after undergoing respective surgeries to repair knee and wrist injuries, missing a combined SIXTY-THREE games as a result. Furthermore, (Sophomore Forward) Patrick Williams (6.6 PTS, 56.5% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 100.0% FT, 2.2 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 9.4 PER), who was expected to play a major role defensively in the rotation, lasted just five games before breaking his left wrist, though his return is expected relatively soon. Unfortunately, Chicago can’t get these guys back on the hardwood soon enough, for following last night’s narrow loss at the Hawks (more on that shortly), they have dropped three consecutive games for just the second time this season, falling out of their tie with Miami for first place in East. though they’ve remained an effective side offensively during this malaise, they’ve been completely eviscerated on the defensive end, yielding 119.3 points on 48.3% shooting from the floor, including 39.4% from three, while their opponents are +8.7 from the free-throw line and +7.3 on the glass, dishing out 25.7 assists opposed to committing only 10.7 turnovers. Simply put, that’s NOT going to get it done, particularly in the revamped East.
When we last saw the Bulls, they fell to their third straight defeat, ultimately coming up short in a 130-124 shootout against the Hawks Thursday night. Despite leading 35-24 at the end of the first quarter and 63-56 at halftime, Atlanta would go on to outscore them 74-61 following intermission, exploding for FORTY points in the final period of play. With the affair tied at 116-116 with just under three minutes left in regulation, the host’s Trae Young took over, drilling a pair of clutch three-pointers to put his side up 125-118 with forty-four seconds remaining. Though Chicago had a few good looks, they couldn’t keep the birds off the charity stripe, as their late barrage was all for naught. In the end, Donovan’s troops lost a game in which they shot a blistering 59.1% from the field, including 14-of-26 from beyond the arc (53.8%), assisting on THIRTY of their fifty-two field goals, while turning the ball over on fourteen occasions. Five players finished in double-figures scoring, led by DeRozan and LaVine with twenty-two apiece, while Vucevic added twenty-one points and eleven rebounds. However, this contest came down to getting stops, and the Bulls simply didn’t get enough of them, allowing the Hawks to torch them on 52.4% shooting overall and a whopping 18-of-40 from three (45.0%), though the biggest disparity came from the stripe, where Atlanta calmly knocked down 24-of-28 free-throws, outscoring Chicago by a considerable eighteen points in that regard. Furthermore, the visitors’ fourteen turnovers were manufactured into nineteen points for their opponent, which only continued to tilt the affair in the hosts’ favor. And don’t look now, Bulls fans, for the schedule isn’t letting up anytime soon; after tonight’s trip to Milwaukee, they welcome the new-look 76ers at United Center, meaning they’re about to suit up for two VERY high-stake games against their direct competition at the top of the East, which could very well precipitate their fall from the top of the proverbial mountain.