8:00 PM EST – Line: Bucks -7.0, Over/Under: 234.0
Division rivals traveling in very different directions clash tonight in Eastern Wisconsin, as the reigning NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks play host to the reeling Chicago Bulls, from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With the finish line in sight, the Bulls (42-29, 5th in Eastern Conference) are trying to rally the troops so that they can build some precious momentum in lieu of their long-awaited return to the playoffs. After missing the postseason for three consecutive seasons, Chicago underwent a complete rebuild last year, assembling a new brain trust headed by (General Manager) Arturas Karnisovas and (Head Coach) Billy Donovan, and in turn made a late push for the playoffs with the acquisition of (All-Star Center) Nikola Vucevic (18.0 PTS, 47.3% FG, 30.5% 3FG, 74.5% FT, 11.4 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.0 BLK, 18.6 PER) at the Trade Deadline. While they ultimately fell short of their goal, it did not deter them from striving to better themselves in the offseason; Karnisovas and Donovan were VERY busy last summer, splashing a wealth of cash in Free Agency in signing (All-Star Shooting Guard) DeMar DeRozan (27.7 PTS, 50.6% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 86.9% FT, 5.3 REB, 5.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 23.5 PER), (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, 14.5 PER), and (defensive stopper) Alex Caruso (8.1 PTS, 41.7% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 80.0% FT, 3.5 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.8 STL, 12.7 PER). As a result, the Bulls raced out of the gate and ascended to the top of the East, compiling a stellar 26-10 record by early January. While there was initially plenty of skepticism as to how all of these disparate pieces would fit together, Donovan managed to get everyone on the same page, cultivating his charges into an entertaining, high-flying attack that was proving to be greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, many of these pieces were taken away from the puzzle as injuries struck many of their number; (All-Star Swingman) Zach LaVine (24.6 PTS, 48.0% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 4.8 REB, 4.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 20.4 PER) missed ten games during the month of January with an ailing knee, while the aforementioned Ball (knee) and Caruso (wrist) were sidelined for a combined SEVETNY-TWO contests with various maladies, along with (young Forward) Patrick Williams (6.7 PTS, 51.6% FG, 44.4% 3FG, 100.0% FT, 2.2 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 9.0 PER), who finally made his grand return over the weekend following a four-month absence after wrist surgery. Needless to say, that’s A LOT to deal with for any team, but credit Donovan & Co for keeping themselves in the discussion at the top of the tightly contested Eastern Conference, which is where Chicago found themselves entering the All-Star Break. Winners of five straight to close out the first half of the campaign, much of their success was credited to the stellar play of DeRozan, who made his claim for MVP honors with a stretch of basketball that has only been matched by the legendary Wilt Chamberlain; the 32-year-old averaged 30+ points, 5+ rebounds, and 5+ assists while shooting over 55.0% from the field during an eight-game stretch in February. One of the most underrated storylines of this season has been the rebirth of DeRozan in the Windy City, where the veteran Swingman 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, as 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 never looked better; the definition of a late bloomer, DeRozan has posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including scoring (27.7), free-throw percentage (86.9%), and yes, even three-point percentage (35.0%). With that said, it appears that all of these absences have finally weighed on the truncated rotation, for the Bulls have struggled MIGHTILY after the All-Star Break, posting 4-8 record thanks in large part to a porous defense that has been ravaged to the tune of 114.1 points per game on 47.9% shooting from the field, including 36.1% from beyond the arc, and 23.7 assists in comparison to forcing 12.3 turnovers, while being outscored at the charity stripe (-3) and outrebounded (-4.2) on nightly basis. There has been a drain on the offensive end of the hardwood too, with DeRozan & Co averaging 3.8 less points per game, netting 2.2 fewer threes, and dishing out 2.0 less assists during this stretch, which has thus seen them tumble from enjoying a share of first place in the East with the Heat, all the way down to fifth in the hierarchy, trailing the 76ers, Celtics, and their opponent tonight by two full games. Thankfully, reinforcements are on the way in the Windy City, as both Caruso and Williams have returned from injury, though it appears that Ball is a different story altogether; the 24-year-old underwent knee surgery back in late January, and despite being projected to return in 6-8 weeks, has reportedly suffered a setback in his rehab and will be given ten days to rest his knee, making his return for the postseason a legitimate concern within the organization.
When we last saw the Bulls, they managed to snap a three-game losing streak culminating a 27-point thrashing at the hands of the Suns, with a solid performance in a 113-99 victory over the Raptors. Trailing 55-54 at halftime, the hosts put their foot on the gas in the second half, thanks in large part to a 30-18 third quarter in which they ran the visitors off the hardwood. We’d love to have heard what Donovan told his team during intermission, for whatever he said clearly resonated with them; Chicago shot a torrid 12-of-21 from the field (57.1%), including 4-of-7 from beyond the arc (57.1%), assisting on half of their twelve field goals, while neutralizing Toronto on the defensive end on 7-of-19 shooting (36.8%), and a dismal 1-of-7 from downtown (14.3%). In the end, the home side shot a solid 48.9% overall, including 11-of-28 from three (39.3%), with an incredibly efficient twenty-eight assists opposed to committing a scant five turnovers. In all honesty, this one could have been even more lopsided in favor of the denizens of the Windy City, who missed ten of their twenty-four attempts from the charity stripe (58.3%), yet still outscored their opponent in that regard. Leading by as many as twenty-one points in the second half, the Bulls dominated in two particular areas: three-point shooting and points off turnovers. With the Raptors relegated to a miserable 6-of-32 shooting from the perimeter (18.8%), the home side ousted them by fifteen in that particular category, while turning their fourteen turnovers into a whopping 29-point deluge. It was clear that the aforementioned DeRozan was indeed in his bag against his former franchise, matching LaVine for a team-high twenty-six points on a ridiculous 11-of-14 shooting (78.6%), going a perfect 10-of-10 from within the arc, along with five rebounds and three blocks. Vucevic posted his forty-first double-double of the campaign with nineteen points and thirteen rebounds, while (rookie Point Guard) Ayo Dosunmu (8.6 PTS, 52.2% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 67.2% FT, 2.8 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.4 PER), who has performed admirably filling in for the likes of Caruso and Ball, netting eleven points on 5-of-9 shooting (55.6%) and six assists in just over twenty-four minutes off the bench. Tonight’s trip to Milwaukee marks the final leg of a heavily road-dominated schedule over the past month, featuring twelve of fifteen games away from United Center, including their next five outings. However, on the other end of this tunnel, Donovan & Co will have an opportunity to make up precious ground against their direct competition in the standings, including the Heat, Bucks, and Celtics in succession with all of those encounters being contested at home.
Meanwhile, the East may be as wide-open as it has been in quite a while thanks to the Trade Deadline, but there remains growing sentiment that the Bucks (44-27, 2nd 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 (29.8 PTS, 54.7% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 72.1% FT, 11.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.4 BLK, 32.3 PER) along with (All-Stars) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 44.7% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 89.2% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.8 PER) and Jrue Holiday (18.4 PTS, 50.1% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 76.3% FT, 4.5 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 19.8 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-nine of their seventy-one games and is still just the fifth-most utilized three-man combination that (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer has relied upon; the trio has logged 688:03 of gametime thus far, with the team +10.6 in points, +.046 in field goal percentage, +3.4 in rebounding, and +0.6 in assists when they are on the court together. Granted, the Bucks are 29-9 when they are all healthy, which has been the case of late, with the three competing in twenty of their last twenty-two contests, a period in which they’ve gone 14-6, including eight victories in their last nine outings. Simply put, these three are the foundational pieces of the franchise, with each able to score, create, and defend, all the while complementing one another perfectly. However, the Bucks are also getting healthier in other areas, which should sound the alarm across the Association; (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (8.0 PTS, 40.7% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 85.7% FT, 3.0 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.3 BLK, 13.2 PER) finally made his long-awaited return after a 68-game hiatus following back surgery, bringing his length, physicality, and above all else, rim protection to a defense that sorely missed those features over the course of the campaign. During his absence, Budenholzer and (General Manager) Jon Horst went to work at the Trade Deadline in search of reinforcements, landing (veteran Center) Serge Ibaka (6.7 PTS, 47.5% FG, 31.0% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 5.4 REB, 11.8 PER) in exchange for (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. Much like Lopez, the 32-year-old offers championship experience and rim-protection, along with perimeter shooting, which makes them the ideal complement alongside Antetokoumpo. In the three games since his return to the hardwood, Lopez has been gradually reinserted into the rotation, logging an average of 16.8 minutes of gametime, along with 8.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks. (Veteran Guard) George Hill (6.7 PTS, 43.5% FG, 32.5% 3FG, 92.3% FT, 3.1 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.8 PER) has also returned from a sprained neck to provide more backcourt depth, though the supporting cast has prospered mostly due to the emergence of their younger teammates; (sparkplug Guard) Grayson Allen (11.2 PTS, 43.4% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 86.2% FT, 3.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.7 PER) has missed some time but has nonetheless been a sound addition to the supporting cast, while (journeyman Forward) Bobby Portis (15.1 PTS, 48.0% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 75.2% FT, 9.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.8 BLK, 18.1 PER) has really found a home within Budenholzer’s system. After playing for three different teams in two years, the 27-year-old landed in Milwaukee last season and played an important role in their run to the O’Brien trophy, and with Lopez sidelined for so long, has flourished as a small-ball five. Portis has logged career-highs in a slew of categories including minutes (28.8), points (15.1), three-pointers (122), rebounds (9.1), and blocks (0.8). At 6′-10″, he has the length and size to defend the rim and hold his own on the glass, while his three-point shooting (40.0%) complements Antetokounmpo perfectly, creating space for the Greek Freak to operate in the paint. And speaking of Giannis, the reigning Finals MVP is in the midst of arguably the most impressive season of his career, which is REALLY saying something; nobody would fault handing the 27-year-old his third Most Valuable Player award in four years after posting career-highs in scoring (29.8), while improving greatly from the charity stripe, where he’s knocked down 8.3 free-throws a night (72.1%). With that said, there is a chance that he will miss tonight’s affair with the Bulls after sitting out Saturday’s blowout loss in Minnesota with a sore knee. Budenholzer has stated that the five-time All-NBA selection is day-to-day, though if he were to suit up against Chicago then you can expect him to light off some fireworks; in two meetings thus far (both of which were Milwaukee victories), Antetokounmpo has ravaged them for 32.0 points on 51.1% shooting from the field, along with 14.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks. Middelton, on the other hand, is expected to be out of action tonight with a sore wrist following the weekend’s action.
When we last saw the Bucks, their run of eight wins in nine outings came to a close ironically with their first outing sans the services of a member of their aforementioned big three in quite a while, as Antetokounmpo sat out last weekend’s 138-119 loss at the Timberwolves. A former Defensive Player of the Year to boot, it was clear that Milwaukee missed the presence of the Greek International, for they had ZERO answers for Minnesota when they were in possession, yielding the most points in a single game that they have allowed all season. The hosts got off to a torrid start, shooting 11-of-21 in the first quarter (52.4%), including 5-of-11 from beyond the arc (45.4%), while also permitting 7-of-10 shooting from the charity stripe (70.0%), with visitors shooting none in the first period. This trend would continue throughout the next two stanzas, allowing the Wolves to build a lead as great as twenty-four points. In the end, Budenholzer’s troops relinquished 51.1% shooting from the floor, including 22-of-47 from downtown (46.8%), and 22-of-26 from the free-throw line (84.6%), and assisting on thirty of their forty-seven field goals. The deer on the other hand, could muster just 44.3% shooting, including 19-of-52 from three (36.5%), and 14-of-17 from the stripe (82.4%), meaning that they were outscored by a combined seventeen points in those last two categories. However, the biggest factor in this affair were turnovers, of which the visiting side was the victim more often than not; despite committing only three more turnovers (14) than their opponent, the Timberwolves turned those mistakes into TWENTY-ONE points in comparison to just four going in the opposite direction. Simply put, without Giannis storming up and down the court, the Bucks just couldn’t get out in transition, as they were outscored 25-12 on the break. With that said, seven different players scored in double-figures for Milwaukee, led by Middleton with fifteen points on 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%), seven rebounds, and five assists, while the returned Pat Connaughton (10.1 PTS, 46.7% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 81.1% FT, 4.3 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.6 PER) matched that point total with all of his production coming from the perimeter (5-of-11 3FG). Now it’s another meeting with the Bulls on deck for tonight, their third this season, with the deer looking to win the season series with a third straight victory over their divisional rivals; their previous two meetings were decided by a combined ten points, with the Bucks edging them in a pair of largely defensive-oriented matchups. This is an important contest for Milwaukee, who currently sit behind the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat for first place in the standings (three games), while pacing both the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics by a half-game apiece.