Bulls

Confident Bucks improving with wins, not just experience

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Confident Bucks improving with wins, not just experience

When the Eastern Conference playoff matchups were finalized two weeks ago, a quick glance at the bracket showed an appetizing potential second round matchup between LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers and the Bulls looming. A pair of contenders and bitter rivals that had met in the postseason three times in the last five seasons appeared to be on a collision course for a fourth meeting.

But the Milwaukee Bucks are getting stronger. And they're committed to putting those talks on hold.

They took another step Monday night, clamping down defensively yet again and receiving contributions from a number of players in a 94-88 Game 5 victory over the Bulls, their second straight win facing elimination in their best-of-seven series.

"Everyone’s talking about the future, everyone’s talking about (the Bulls') series with Cleveland," Jared Dudley said. "We’re still here."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Jason Kidd has made it a point during the series to reiterate the point that his youthful Bucks, whose top four leading scorers in the regular season all are 23 or younger, were playing to win, but also were looking to gain valuable experience and improvement to build for the future.

And in five games they've done just that; their defense against a Bulls team ranked 10th in offensive efficiency has been nothing short of spectacular, budding star Khris Middleton has averaged 17.8 points per game, 20-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo has gone toe-to-toe with All-Star Jimmy Butler and Michael Carter-Williams is coming along nicely after a slow start, scoring 22 points in Monday's Game 5 win.

But more important than the progression and investments for the future, the Bucks are winning. Their inexperienced core got their playoff debuts out of the way in Chicago - both Bulls victories - before returning to Milwaukee, playing in front of a raucous home crowd where they took the Bulls to double overtime in Game 3 and first tasted success in a Game 4 in which they played to their strengths flawlessly.

That victory gave them new life, which they parlayed into Monday's game. The Bucks forced 13 more Bulls turnovers which translated to 19 points, held Chicago to 35 percent shooting (including 10-for-41 shooting from Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler) and found better looks at the basket, scoring 46 points in the paint.

They heeded Jason Kidd's words of starting quickly, scoring the game's first nine points and then withstanding the Bulls' 21-4 run afterwards, taking a three-point lead into halftime. When Carter-Williams, who had spearheaded the offensive attack in the first half, headed to the locker room with what looked to be a nasty sprained right ankle in the third quarter, they clamped down defensively, holding the Bulls to 29 percent shooting in the quarter. And when the Bulls made their inevitable run in the fourth quarter, cutting a nine-point deficit to three, Milwaukee withstood and scored six of the next seven points to push the game out of reach.

[RELATED: Mayo relishing chance to play Bucks enforcer]

It's that sense of urgency that has the Bucks playing with utter confidence. Power forward John Henson, who scored eight points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, likened Milwaukee's situation to that of the NCAA Tournament, a humorous analogy considering many of their core contributors are just a few years removed from college themselves.

"It was good to be out there playing for your life, playing for your season. We don’t have anything to do this summer, so we’re trying to stay here as long as we can," he said. "It’s getting to the point where anything can happen."

Two games in which the pace has played in Milwaukee's favor, combined with that newfound sense of urgency and confidence has quickly made this series feel like more of a toss-up. The Bulls still hold the upper hand, leading 3-2 with a potential Game 7 at home, but Milwaukee is jumping on the opportunity to improve. In the first three games of the series it appeared that improvement would come in the form of experience, but as the wins pile up their attitude has changed. So for now the Cavaliers will have to wait.

"We just go out there and play our type of basketball. We've gotten better," Kidd said. "These guys have a lot to lose. We have an opportunity to get better each time we go to work."

Kendall Gill named to Illini Athletics Hall of Fame

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NBC SPORTS

Kendall Gill named to Illini Athletics Hall of Fame

Kendall Gill can add another bullet point to his resume.

NBC Sports Chicago's Bulls analyst was announced as a member of the University of Illinois' Athletics Hall of Fame for the Class of 2018. Gill enters in the same class as his coach at Illinois, Lou Henson, and former Bulls broadcaster Johnny "Red" Kerr.

Gill was a part of Illinois' 1989 Final Four team and earned consensus Second-Team All-America honors the following year as a senior when he led the Big Ten in scoring (20 points per game). He is third in program history in steals with 218.

He went on to have a 15-year NBA career, which included a stint with the Bulls.

Last year was the inaugural class for Illinois' hall of fame.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Bulls-76ers

The Bulls square off against the Sixers tonight on NBC Sports Chicago, with coverage beginning at 6:30 with Bulls Pregame Live. Here are three things to watch as the Bulls begin the stretch run of their regular season.

1. The new rotation: Most of the Bulls’ rotation looks the same, but the addition of David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will have a different feel. The Bulls clearly want to get a look at these guys before the end of the regular season, meaning they’re not just going to get sporadic minutes. They’ll have to play through their mistakes, play out-matched at times and be put in uncomfortable situations. But the Bulls need to see what they have, especially in Payne, who has missed the entire season to this point with a broken foot.

2. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: They’re quite the 1-2 punch and have the Sixers looking at their first playoff appearance since Derrick Rose hadn’t yet torn an ACL. Yeah, that’s a long time. Embiid just finished his first All-Star appearance (starting in his second year) and Simmons is the front runner for Rookie of the Year. The Bulls will have their hands full with these two. Luckily…

3. Kris Dunn is back: The Bulls wanted to get Dunn some run before heading to All-Star Weekend to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, and he looked healthy in that thumping against the Raptors last week. The good news is John Paxson says Dunn won’t be on a minutes limit, which means he’s healthy. That, of course, is more important than how he’s playing. It’ll be fun to see him, LaVine and Markkanen play together down the stretch. Their numbers together aren’t great, but the Bulls are 2-2 with all three in the lineup, and tanking or not…it’s more fun to watch when those three are rolling.