The Chicago Bulls entered their first-round playoff series with the Bucks as big underdogs.
A 93-86 road loss in Game 1, then, hurts. The Bulls trailed by three points in the final minute, but Nikola Vučević hit the rim and Zach LaVine’s game-tying 3-point attempt went wide as Brook Lopez’s floats kept the defending champions afloat.
“They made a couple more game-winning plays than we did at the end,” LaVine said of Milwaukee.
Whether the loss is remembered as an excruciating missed opportunity or a harbinger of a competitive series to come remains to be seen.
In the meantime, here are five observations:
The bulls hold on hard
The Bucks wasted no time in asserting their dominance in this one, jumping on a 9-0 run to start the game and forcing a timeout from Billy Donovan after 93 seconds of play. That deficit grew to 16 in the first half, but the Bulls responded encouragingly, winning the second quarter 22-17 to trail 51-43 at halftime after losing the first 34-21.
More encouraging: That streak not only continued, but intensified, in the third quarter. First, it was LaVine scoring seven points and making his first three field goal attempts. Then, when he left due to a foul problem, Vučević stepped up and scored eight straight points to pull the Bulls from behind 64-56 to tie. Next up was Coby White, who had a 3-pointer and a layup to propel the Bulls ahead 69-64.
Those three combined for 26 of the Bulls’ 28 points in the third quarter, which topped the Bucks’ 23. Although Milwaukee ended on a 10-2 run, the host’s 74-71 lead entering the fourth was hardly commanding. It marks a departure from these teams’ last two regular-season matchups, when the early Bucks snowballed into blowouts.
“We didn’t give up,” LaVine said. “Before (in previous matchups with the Bucks), early on, there are certain points in the game where we would hang our heads. We had a good talk (tonight). Everyone was cheering each other on.”
The momentum of the game almost changed when LaVine committed his fourth personal foul at 6:42 of the third quarter. Trailing 62-56, the Bulls shooting guard bolted for a fast-break layup, but Khris Middleton slid in to draw a charge: an explosive play that Donovan decided not to challenge, but ultimately turned into a four-point swing. points when Giannis Antetokounmpo flushed. home a nailed at the other end.
“Our guys behind the bench thought he was a liability,” Donovan said after the game. “So I didn’t bother challenging him. I thought about it, but with the way the game was going, losing a challenge and potentially not having him at the end of the game, I just didn’t feel like it.”
The Bulls’ streak continued after LaVine’s departure, but that foul, in addition to committing his fifth foul against Bobby Portis early in the quarter, limited him to 14 minutes in the second half after playing 22 in the first. LaVine missed all six of his field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, including a 31-footer with 29.7 seconds remaining that would have tied the game 89-89.
“It didn’t take my rhythm away,” LaVine said of his foul problem. “He just took me out of the game when I didn’t want to.”
However, LaVine wasn’t the only star in the game to threaten the six-foul limit. Antetokounmpo also scored his fifth early in the quarter, at the 8:14 mark, to be exact, after Alex Caruso slid into a charge while attempting a drive late on the shot clock. That was significant because the Bucks, at the time, were plus-16 in Antetokounmpo’s minutes and minus-15 with him off the floor.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was forced to rock Antetokounmpo in and out of the game down the stretch. Although Antetokounmpo didn’t score in seven minutes of the fourth quarter, he narrowly avoided committing a foul when Patrick Williams was called for a foul on a fumble that could easily have been in the back with 2:05 remaining.
“I thought he was on his back, but that was from my angle,” Donovan said. “I think one of the things we have to do in these playoff games is get to the next play.”
The 3-point line appeared as an X factor entering this series. The Bucks allowed by far the most opponents’ 3-point attempts per game this regular season, while the Bulls were by far the fewest, and after their All-Star break, they saw their percentage plummeted.
Neither team was able to hit the wide side of a barn from long range on this one. The Bucks finished the contest 10-for-38 (26.3 percent) from beyond the arc, the Bulls 7-for-38 (18.9 percent), adding to a decidedly unmodern shooting line of 17 75 between the two. .
This can be taken in two ways. On the one hand, the Bulls’ “Big Three” of Vučević (9-for-27), DeRozan (6-for-25) and LaVine (6-for-19) shot a combined 21-for-71, which DeRozan promised would never happen again.
“I don’t know what the hell was going on. Probably the week off. It just wasn’t me,” DeRozan said of his shooting issues. “Every shot I took felt good. I guarantee that Zach or Vooch won’t miss that many shots again. We just have to keep what we did defensively and take it to another level.”
But on the other hand, many of Milwaukee’s 28 missed 3-point attempts were clean looks from capable shooters, while the Bulls’ record from long range is less certain. What is certain is that these eyes will be there for the Bulls, and Vučević, specifically, who shot 2-for-10 from deep, all series, and they will need to do more.
Donovan and DeRozan credited the Bulls’ defensive intensity as a key factor in being able to stay in the game after a slow start.
“We were on a rope tonight. We work very hard all week to meet, communicate and understand the tasks,” said DeRozan. “And tonight we go out and show it. We were all over the place helping each other, reading plays before it happened.”
And it’s true. The Bulls forced 21 turnovers from the Bucks in this one and scored 15 points from them. Ten of those turnovers were due to steals (DeRozan, Caruso and Williams each had multiples) and 16 were attributable to the Bucks’ Big Three of Middleton (7), Antetokounmpo (5) and Jrue Holiday (4). As a team, in fact, the Bulls drew three offensive fouls on Antetokounmpo.
“I thought our guys were physical,” Donovan said while acknowledging that Milwaukee missed some open stares. “What I enjoyed about our team tonight was that I thought we put our bodies and our noses and our faces into the plays.”
Holding the league’s third-largest regular-season offense to 93 points is an encouraging start to a series the Bulls will need to foul up to stand a chance. But the formula must hold.
DeRozan (43), Vučević (39) and LaVine (37), even battling foul trouble, each punted 37 minutes. Donovan turned to Derrick Jones Jr. at multiple junctures: once in a super-small frontcourt matchup with Javonte Green (which was a plus-2 in about two minutes of action), and again in the second half alongside Vučević.
But the biggest ripple was the near exclusion of Ayo Dosunmu. The rookie guard averaged 32 minutes after Christmas and hadn’t played fewer than 10 in a game since late November before logging nine in this one.
“I have a lot of confidence in Ayo,” Donovan said. “But I think as you get to this point in the playoffs, especially with two days between games, you’re going to look at Vooch, you’re going to look at DeMar, you’re going to look at Zach and the minutes of him. They are going to be much higher.”
That, coupled with strong play from Jones Jr. and White (12 points, two 3-pointers) led Donovan to make the adjustment.
Next up: Game 2 on Wednesday.
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