Joakim Noah walked up the sideline, yelling to himself as he headed to the bench, unable to figure out why the Milwaukee Bucks were methodically pulling away in a game that on paper should’ve been an easy win for the Bulls.
But as the Bucks have gained more and more confidence throughout this series, Game 5’s 94-88 decision was only shocking if you took into account things that wouldn’t faze either side.
The Bulls returning home to the United Center, a place the Bucks don’t feel intimidated by. Or the news about the Cleveland Cavaliers losing Kevin Love and J.R. Smith for the conference semifinals.
What mattered is the Bucks’ fearlessness and length and growing confidence, illustrated by the Bulls’ panic—or weary legs, according to their counterparts-- in the fourth quarter compared to the Bucks’ coolness.
Again jumping out to a 9-0 lead on the Bulls, stunning a crowd that was ready to look ahead and celebrate, forcing the Bulls to play from behind essentially all night, squashing a Bulls’ confident gameplan that didn’t revolve around “turn the ball over 28 times”.
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They cut that in half with just 13. But unfortunately, the open shots they hit in Game 4 were nowhere to be found in Game 5, as they shot 34 percent from the field, punctuated by their horrid 7-for-30 performance in the fourth quarter, when they were desperately trying to string possessions together.
“We didn’t make shots,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It was turnovers last game; We got the turnovers down. But then we couldn’t make our threes. It’s a make of miss league. When you don’t make it, it’s not going to look good.”
It was an ugly performance from there, as they shot four of 22 from 3-point range, as the Bucks were content with Derrick Rose launch seven of them without success, part of a five for 20 evening.
Rose was met with a wall of Bucks’ defenders all evening, as he didn’t commit the fatal error at the buzzer—he just made a bevy of them all night (six turnovers) and struggled with his shot.
His partner in “MVP” chants, Jimmy Butler, didn’t fare much better, shooting five for 21, compiling a nice stat line of 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but he knew that was misleading.
"I’m supposed to be the primetime defensive guy and I haven’t guarded a soul,” Butler said. “I’m worried about offense too much."
Pau Gasol had his first primetime game of the series, with 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but didn’t have much help. Bench scorers Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic didn’t impact the game, negated by the Bucks’ length and size the Bulls haven’t been able to reasonably counter.
Khris Middleton again quietly had a forceful night, scoring 21 on 16 shots, one of the few Bucks who shot well as they mustered only 18 points in the fourth, shooting 39 percent but remarkably kept the Bulls at bay. The Bulls planned to leave Zaza Pachulia open and he made them pay, hitting a couple circus midrange shots that quelled Bulls’ runs, and OJ Mayo incited the wrath of the Bulls’ crowd and the players, getting into a couple scrums that could’ve redirected the Bulls’ focus.
After Butler and Noah scored inside with 8:32 left to cut the Bucks’ lead to three, they were expected to fold.
But they regrouped, quickly pushed the lead back to 86-77 a minute later after Noah missed two point-blank layups and survived another Bull run a few minutes later, turning them back with their relentless defense led by Giannis Antetokoumnpo and John Henson’s shot blocking until the Bulls had nothing left.
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“Just growing. Growing up,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “Going through these games in the regular season (was) a dress rehearsal.”
And now they’re no longer naïve or fearful, able to absorb the emotion the Bulls inconsistently dished out while staying consistent.
Michael Carter-Williams looked Rose right in the face, repeatedly taking any and everybody to the basket for his 22 points, to go along with his nine assists, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Not even an ankle sprain that left him questionable in the third quarter was going to stop him, as he returned, completing a night where all 10 of his field goals were in the Bulls’ paint.
“He hit a lot of tough shots,” Rose said. “Shots that he hit, I tried not to foul, I put my arms up and he kept banking them. It’s the first game he hit that many shots. Tough shots but he made them, so I’ll make an adjustment next time.”
They knew they were going home no matter what after Game 5, they just made the decision to take the Bulls back to Milwaukee with them for what should be a raucous Game 6 Wednesday night.