9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -10, Over/Under: 225
Division Rivals get set to clash yet again in what appears to be very much a classic swing game as the Chicago Bulls look to steal one on the road at the (reigning NBA Champion) Milwaukee Bucks in Game Two of their First Round Series from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 2021-2022 began as a season of such promise for the Bulls (46-36, 6th in Eastern Conference), who at one point sat atop the East on the strength of a stellar 26-10 record back in early January. Few teams were as active in the offseason as Chicago, with (Head Coach) Billy Donovan and (General Manager) Arturas Karnisovas continuing their revamping of the roster in the form of signing (All-Star Swingman) DeMar DeRozan (27.9 PTS, 50.4% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 87.7% FT, 5.2 REB, 4.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 23.1 PER), (talented 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 sparkplug) Alex Caruso (7.4 PTS, 39.8% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 79.5% FT, 3.6 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.7 STL, 11.7 PER) all in Free Agency. While there were indeed legitimate concerns as to just how much better the team had become, they were quickly put to rest as Donovan quickly put together a cohesive unit, with the 56-year-old getting the most out of a number of players deemed poor fits. This was particularly the case with DeRozan, who has for all intents and purposes been viewed as a dinosaur in today’s NBA. In an age in which shooting and spacing have become mandates at the Guard positions, the 32-year-old is a throwback to an earlier period of time, eschewing three-pointers for contested mid-range shots which the analytics department will tell you are a big no-no. However, credit to both Donovan and DeRozan for finding a compromise, for quite frankly the latter has never looked better at any point of his unappreciated career; the five-time All-Star posted career-highs in points (27.9) and even three-point percentage (35.2%), though still performed the bulk of his work within the arc, leading the league in both two-point field goals (724) and attempts (1,393). In fact, no player in the NBA made more field goals than one DeMar Darnell DeRozan. And it’s a damned good thing that the Bulls signed this guy in the offseason, for they absolutely NEEDED him as injuries utterly decimated the rotation during the second half of the campaign. After that torrid start, Chicago limped to the finish line with a 20-26 thud, including a miserable 8-15 record after the All-Star Break; Caruso would miss THIRTY-FIVE of thirty-seven games due an ailing wrist, while Ball missed the final FORTY-TWO games of the regular season with an ailing knee and has thus been ruled out of the playoffs altogether. While Ball’s absence has certainly affected them offensively, particularly in terms of operating on the break, the biggest problem for Donovan & Co has been on the defensive end where they’ve been shredded since the All-Star Break, allowing 116.2 points per game on 49.2% shooting from the field, including 37.3% from downtown, and 24.9 assists opposed to forcing just 11.9 turnovers, while getting outrebounded by 3.5 boards a night. Making matters worse was that in falling to the sixth seed in the East, they ended up being matched up with no other than the Bucks, who in four regular season meetings utterly DEMOLISHED them to the tune of outscoring them by an average of 114.8 points on 50.1% shooting. Indeed, the Bulls must have been seriously disappointed when the Bucks (who they had met three times in the last month and lost by a combined FIFTY-FIVE points along the way) effectively opted to throw their season finale and drop to the third seed. So, how did Game One play out, you ask? Well, it was a lot closer than most would have expected, but Chicago’s first playoff game in five years ended in defeat nonetheless, 93-86. Despite trailing by as many sixteen points in the first half, the visitors patiently closed the gap in the third period, eventually taking the lead with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. However, in a final stanza in which both sides were clearly running out of gas, it was the hosts who found one last burst, ending the Easter Sunday encounter on a 6-0 run over the final ninety seconds of action. In the end, the Bulls could muster only fifteen points on 6-of-28 shooting (21.4%) in the fourth period, netting only 1-of-12 threes (8.3%) in the process. DeRozan, who struggled mightily throughout the affair with eighteen points on 6-of-25 shooting (24.0%), was a dreadful 1-of-6 from the field (16.7%) in the final frame. Furthermore, (All-Stars) Nikola Vucevic (17.6 PTS, 47.3% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 76.0% FT, 11.0 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.0 BLK, 18.2 PER) and Zack LaVine (24.4 PTS, 47.6% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 85.3% FT, 4.6 REB, 4.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 20.0 PER) were a combined 1-of-14 over the final twelve minutes with nary a free-throw between them. Donovan will no doubt be lamenting his charges’ lack of offensive potency, shooting a poor 32.3% from the floor and 7-of-37 from beyond the arc (18.9%), while struggling to move the basketball with seventeen assists. With that said, there were some positive takeaways to be found even in defeat, for this was the first time all season that they really managed to get after Milwaukee on the defensive end; the reigning champs shot just 40.5% overall and 10-of-38 from downtown (26.3%), and were harassed into a whopping TWENTY-ONE turnovers, which the visiting side in turn manufactured into fifteen points. They also held their own on the glass (58-53), particularly on the offensive end with sixteen boards, which coupled with those takeaways led to twelve more field goal attempts. If they can maintain that defensive intensity, which is a BIG if, then you would have to think that their prospects of pushing this series to the limit will increase exponentially. They’ll just have to shoot better, though we would also expect the Bucks to do the same after Sunday’s throwback to the 90s.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tumbled down the standings over the course of the second half of the campaign, the Bucks (51-31, 3rd in Eastern Conference) were busy reestablishing themselves as the favorites in the loaded East. 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 was understandable for a team that was clearly fatigued following their run to the Finals, only for their top three performers, (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.9 PTS, 55.3% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 72.2% FT, 11.6 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.4 BLK, 32.1 PER) along with (All-Stars) Khris Middleton (20.1 PTS, 44.3% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 89.0% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 18.1 PER) and Jrue Holiday (18.3 PTS, 50.1% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 4.5 REB, 6.8 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 for the team. As a result, that triumvirate didn’t spend much time together on the hardwood throughout the first half of the campaign; Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday featured together in just TWENTY of the team’s first FIFTY games this season, but since then have made twenty-five starts together over the final thirty-two games of the regular season, in which the club has gone a stellar 19-6 with them on the court and 22-10 overall. Simply put, these three are the foundational pieces of the franchise, with each individual able to score, create, and defend with aplomb, all the while complementing one another perfectly. However, (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer can also attribute this return to form to the further evolution of the supporting cast, which has received a major boost in the return of (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (12.4 PTS, 46.6% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 4.5 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.2 BLK, 16.0 PER) from a 68-game absence following back surgery, with the 33-year-old bringing his length, physicality, and above all else, rim protection to a defense that sorely missed those features over the course of the campaign. In his absence, Milwaukee added (veteran big man) Serge Ibaka (7.0 PTS, 51.9% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 80.0% FT, 5.3 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.4 BLK, 13.7 PER) to the mix at the Trade Deadline, while also enjoying the continued growth of (versatile Forward) Bobby Portis (14.6 PTS, 47.9% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 75.2% FT, 9.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 17.7 PER) and (sparkplug Guard) Greyson Allen (11.1 PTS, 44.8% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 86.5% FT, 3.4 REB< 1.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.7 PER). In a similar mold to Lopez and Ibaka, Portis is an ideal fit within Budenholzer’s system, operating as a Stretch-4 or Small-Ball 5 who slots in perfectly alongside Giannis on the offensive end, while sporting the requisite length and physicality to defend the rim and battle on the glass. 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 has taken full advantage of the opportunity to show and prove, logging career-highs in a slew of categories including minutes (28.2), points (14.6), three-pointers (133), and rebounds (9.1). In the running to land the one seed down to the last week of the regular season, the Bucks ultimately relented once the Heat clinched the top seed in the East, with Budenholzer sitting the majority of his starting lineup in the regular season finale at Cleveland, effectively choosing to face the Bulls in the first round rather than meet the Nets. Of course, this seemed like a no-brainer for after last year’s seven-game epic with Brooklyn, getting the postseason started against a division rival whom you OWNED in four encounters was easily the logical decision. As we stated earlier, Milwaukee had turned Chicago into their proverbial punching bag throughout the campaign, only for the tables to be turned in Sunday’s 93-86 slugfest, which would have had any 90s diehards frothing at the mouth. Though the hosts managed to establish a 16-point lead in the first half, the visitors climbed back into the contest in large part to the deer’s inability to take care of the basketball; indeed, self-inflicted wounds made this one a lot closer than it was expected to be, with Budenholzer’s charges committing TWENTY-ONE turnovers, nine of which came in a fourth quarter in which the two sides combined for just thirty-four points. With that said, when it was time buckle down, it was the Bucks who proved capable of closing it out; clinging to an 87-86 lead with 1:24 left to play, Lopez knocked down a short jumper, and after denying the Bulls on three consecutive attempts, iced the game from the charity stripe as Holiday and Middleton calmly netted a pair of free-throws apiece. Despite shooting just 40.5% from the field, 10-of-38 from the perimeter (26.3%), and 15-of-23 from the line (65.2%), Milwaukee still edged Chicago in the paint (+10) and from three (+9), and even with all those turnovers they were only outscored in points via 15-14. Of course, it certainly helps to have Antetokuonmpo, who continues to prove capable of bulldozing his way to the rim whenever he is inclined to do so; the Greek International totaled twenty-seven points on 10-of-19 shooting (52.6%), sixteen rebounds, three assists, and a pair of blocks, with his only kryptonite proving to be the free-throw line (6-of-11). Lopez added eighteen points, while Middelton and Holiday combined for twenty-six points and twelve assists, with Portis chipping in with another ten points and twelve rebounds off the bench. Moving forward, one would have to expect the rest of the supporting cast (particularly Middleton and Holiday) to find their shooting stroke after netting a combined 10-of-29 from the floor (34.4%) and 1-of-11 from beyond the arc (9.0%), as well as enjoying more easier looks in transition. As we saw during their run to the O’Brien last summer, few teams are as devastating in the open court as Milwaukee is, with their EIGHT fastbreak points in this affair nearly matching a season low. Furthermore, Budenholzer has the luxury of having one of the largest rotations in the NBA, and that size will eventually make its presence felt in this series, no matter how persistent the Bulls proved to be on the glass. Oh, and then there is Giannis, who averaged 26.8 points on 55.7% shooting, with 13.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.0 steal, and 1.5 blocks in those four regular season meetings, who we don’t see slowing down in this matchup at all.