7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -10, Over/Under: 219.5
As one team eyes moving on to the next round of the playoffs, another is simply trying to prolong what feels inevitable, as the Chicago Bulls desperately search for a lifeline as they get set to face the (reigning NBA Champion) Milwaukee Bucks in Game Five of their First Round Series from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It may be bittersweet to acknowledge it, but if the season were to end tonight for the Bulls (46-36, 6th in Eastern Conference), then their 2021-2022 campaign just be looked back on as a success. Granted, getting eliminated in the first round isn’t necessarily glamorous by any means, particularly when you consider how soundly they’ve been beaten over the last two chapters of this series, but before judging this franchise solely on this outcome, one must take into account what game before. Simply put, Chicago spent the better part of four years in the proverbial wilderness, what with back-to-back 22-win seasons from 2018 to 2020. However, the club hit the reset button in major way in the summer of 2020, hiring (General Manager) Arturas Karnisovas to lead the front office, who in turn lured (Head Coach) Billy Donovan to the Windy City. The team showed incremental improvement under the watch of the 56-year-old, welcoming in (All-Star Center) 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) midseason via trade in an attempt to make a push for the playoffs. Though they ultimately fell short of that goal, the foundation had been laid, and the Bulls went back to the market in the summer, spending big in Free Agency on the likes of (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). This group quickly proved to be greater than the sum of their parts, getting off to a swift 26-10 start en route to occupying first place in the East in early January. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sustain that success, particularly as the rotation was hit by a number of unfortunate injuries, which also happened to coincide with many of their competition within the conference getting healthier and better. 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, to say nothing of (Sophomore Forward) Patrick Williams (9.0 PTS, 52.9% FG, 51.7% 3FG, 73.2% FT, 4.1 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 12.7 PER), who went down with a broken wrist in the fifth game of the season and wouldn’t return to the hardwood until late March. And it’s with that said, that since January 7th, Donovan’s troops limped to the finish line with a 20-26 thud, tumbling down the standings to the sixth seed, setting up a nightmare matchup against Central Division rival, Milwaukee, who had swept them in four regular season meetings. Though they trail 3-1, this series has very much been a tale of two halves. Chicago put up quite the fight in Games One (86-93) and Two (114-110), with their defense getting after the deer like the hadn’t in any of their previous encounters; Donovan’s charges relegated the defending champs to 43.4% shooting from the field, including 32.4% from beyond the arc, while forcing a whopping 18.0 turnovers along the way, parlaying a total of thirty-six takeaways into thirty-four points. Furthermore, they limited the Bucks’ opportunities in transition, yielding only eight fast break points in Game One, followed by nineteen in Game Two. Of course, it also helped immensely to receive a virtuoso performance from DeRozan in the latter of the two affairs, as the five-time All-Star exploded for a career playoff high FORTY-ONE points on 16-of-31 shooting (51.6%) and 9-of-9 from the charity stripe (100.0%), burying a cavalcade of midrange jumpers in the second half. Though his arrival wasn’t met with much fanfare, the 32-year-old turned in what was by far and away the finest year of his career, posting highs in slew of categories, including 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, who almost singlehandedly kept them afloat during that aforementioned injury crisis. Unfortunately, all that good will built in Milwaukee amounted to absolutely nothing as the series shifted to Chicago, as their offensive woes from the opener returned in a major way, while the champs put their collective foot on the gas; over those two games, the hosts were outscored by a staggering FIFTY-FOUR points, mustering a scant 88.0 points per contest on 39.1% shooting from the field, including 25.7% from downtown, where they were outscored by a ridiculous FORTY-TWO points. The visitors solved that defensive pressure quickly, committing only ten turnovers in Game Three (111-81) and fifteen in Sunday afternoon’s 119-95 drubbing at United Center, translating to a +6 advantage in points via takeaways. We’ll get into how the Bucks erupted in a little bit, but the Bulls inability to get anything going offensively was easily the most disappointing takeaway from the affair; netting a miserable 38.9% of their attempts overall, the home side went 9-of-36 from three (25.0%), despite dishing out twenty-seven assists in comparison to committing just eleven turnovers. Basically, they moved the ball well enough, but couldn’t knock down open shots. DeRozan finished with twenty-three points on an underwhelming 8-of-20 shooting (40.0%), while (All-Star Swingman) Zach 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) led the team with twenty-four points, five rebounds, and thirteen assists. Vucevic, completely preoccupied with defending Giannis Antetokounmpo (much more on him shortly), showed his fatigue on the offensive end, with a meager eleven points on 5-of-14 shooting (35.7%), and 1-of-6 from the perimeter (16.7%). Add it all up and this is a team that is forty-eight minutes away from heading to Cancun. However, moving forward there is plenty to be excited about with these Bulls, particularly if they can manage to put all of these injuries behind them. DeRozan was nothing short of brilliant this season, and given his style of play, he should age like a fine wine, while the transition game was Showtime-esque with Ball pulling the strings. Furthermore, youngsters such as Williams and (Rookie Guard) Ayo Dosunmu (8.8 PTS, 52.0% FG, 37.6% 3FG, 67.9% FT, 2.8 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.2 PER) played well when given the chance. The only real question mark is LaVine, who subsequently entered COVID protocols on Tuesday and soon will enter Unrestricted Free Agency expected to demand a LUCRATIVE contract. If he returns to the fold, then Donovan & Co have the pieces to take another step, and with a little internal growth from their youngsters and this group could seriously level up in the East.
Meanwhile, everyone talks about that “it” factor that champions possess, and whatever the hell “it” is, it’s become crystal clear that the Bucks (51-31, 3rd in Eastern Conference) certainly have “it”. Coming into the playoffs, this matchup with the Bulls was deemed by most to be a gross mismatch, only perpetuated by the fact that Milwaukee willingly SAT their starters in the season finale so that they would fall to the third seed in the East, ensuring a date with a division rival whom they completely owned during the regular season. After all, (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s troops outscored Chicago by a whopping 14.8 points in four meetings prior to this series, with three of those victories coming within the final month of the campaign. Simply put, these deer were not the hunted, for they were the hunters. However, these games aren’t played on paper, folks, and the other team is highly compensated as well, and as fate would have it, the Bucks were pushed to the edge by their opponent in Games One and Two, narrowly surviving the former (93-86) before ultimately capitulating in the latter (110-114). As we stated earlier, this was a team who was offensively challenged in those outings, performing well below their standards in averaging 101.5 points on just 43.4% shooting from the field, including 32.4% from beyond the arc, all the while fumbling the basketball away with a wanton carelessness; indeed, Budenholzer had to have been losing his mind over the thirty-six turnovers his charges committed, effectively keeping them out of transition, and away from any second-chance opportunities. This also limited the use of arguably their biggest advantage: their size. One of the biggest teams in the Association, Milwaukee has proven adept at using that length and girth to smother their opponents as a series progresses, and if you don’t believe us, just as Phoenix for their opinion on the matter. And if those self-inflicted wounds weren’t troubling enough, (All-Star Swingman) 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), collided with a defender and sprained the MCL in his right knee late in Game Two, effectively sidelining the sharpshooter for the rest of the series (and possibly beyond). So, with Middleton on the mend, the offense in disarray, and the scene shifting to the Windy City, this series was clearly setting us up for an upset, right? WRONG. Nothing could have been further from the truth, for as Games Three and Four played out, the defending champs would roll up their sleeves and beat the holy @#$% out of the Bulls, making that quartet of regular season meetings look like foreplay. Game Three started off with a 33-17 blitz in the first quarter, with the visiting side never looking back, shooting 47.3% from the field, 15-of-41 from downtown (36.6%), with twenty-seven assists opposed to just nine turnovers, turning the tables on the takeaway game, harassing Chicago into thirteen turnovers, leading to sixteen points. Game Four was more of the same, though it was the second period that proved to be the difference, with the deer owning a sizable 31-19 advantage. Again, they met little resistance when in possession of the basketball, shooting a sublime 52.3% from the floor and 17-of-33 from deep (51.5%), led by none other than (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), who utterly bludgeoned the hosts to the tune of thirty-two points on 11-of-22 shooting (50.0%) and 9-of-12 from the charity stripe (75.0%), along with seventeen rebounds, seven assists, and a pair of blocks. In fact, both of those swats led to one-man fast breaks for the Greek International, with the latter ending with a fierce slam over a helpless defender. All year long, the reigning Finals MVP has turned the Bulls into his personal punching bag, averaging 27.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.8 blocks in this series. With that said, he was far from the only Buck to feast at United Center, for the supporting cast showed up in a MAJOR way; (All-Star Guard) 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) totaled twenty-six points and seven assists on Sunday afternoon, while (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) showed up again in the playoffs with fourteen points and ten rebounds. However, the biggest surprise was (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), who exploded for TWENTY-SEVEN points on a stellar 10-of-12 shooting (83.3%) and 6-of-7 from long range (85.7%) in just under twenty-nine minutes off the bench. Much was made of Budenholzer’s bench during a regular season in which they spent roughly a quarter of it without the triumvirate of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday healthy at the same time. After winning their first Larry O’Brien trophy in fifty years, those three stars hopped on a plane to compete in the Summer Olympics, altogether leading to a second consecutive abridged offseason for the team, and didn’t spend much time together on the hardwood throughout the first half of the campaign as a result; Milwaukee’s big three featured together in just TWENTY of the team’s first FIFTY games this season, but finished the regular season making twenty-five starts together over the final thirty-two games, in which the club has gone a stellar 19-6 with them on the court and 22-10 overall. The likes of Portis and Allen played a huge role in their success during that period, and that time spent without their big guns effectively taught this group how to persevere without them, which again brings us back to that term, “it”. If these guys have “it”, then they will no doubt be ready and anxious to get this series over with tonight, particularly after watching their next opponent, the Celtics, sweep their way into the Eastern Conference Semifinals, setting up what is easily the most anticipated matchup of the playoffs thus far.