Kidd: Bucks 'learning how to win' as rivalry with Bulls blossoms


Kidd: Bucks 'learning how to win' as rivalry with Bulls blossoms

When the Milwaukee Bucks met the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs nearly six months ago, the teams had different expectations.

The Bulls, seemingly playing for their coach's future, touted a league MVP, a two-time NBA champion, a Defensive Player of the Year and the reigning Most Improved Player. Championship aspirations were real, with yet another postseason clash with LeBron James looming following the first round.

The Bucks, whose top four leading scorers were 23 or younger and hadn't appeared in a postseason game, won a franchise-worst 15 games the previous year. First-year Bucks head coach Jason Kidd and his team said all the right things in the lead-up to the series, that they were there to win and not just gain a valuable learning experience for down the road.

Yet despite eventually taking what became a chippy series to a surprising six games, Milwaukee was never a true threat to end the Tom Thibodeau Era, which James did two weeks later.

The 2015-16 season might tell a different story.

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The Bucks are no longer underdogs. They're no longer the NBA's biggest surprise. No one will miss the Bucks coming like they did a year ago when Milwaukee became the ninth team in NBA history to make a one-year jump from owning the league's worst record to securing a postseason berth.

"For us, we’re still in the process of learning how to win and what it means to play hard every night," Kidd said. "(The Bulls) have done that for some time now. They’ve had MVPs, they’ve gotten to big games in playoffs. So for us, we want to hopefully get to that level here in the next few years."

That process began with the team's first non-losing season in five seasons, and it hastened when the young Bucks didn't back down in the playoffs and won a pair of games, including one in Chicago, in what might have been the start of a budding rivalry in the Central Division. That six-game series included 14 technical fouls, four flagrant fouls and a pair of ejections.

Tuesday night's preseason opener between the two teams didn't feature any rough play — Paul Pierce's absence helped — but the meeting didn't lack for intensity. Free-agency winners Khris Middleton (five years, $70 million) and Jimmy Butler (five years, $95 million) traded jabs midway through the second quarter, with Middleton dunking over Butler in transition and staring down the Bulls' guard. Butler responded with an isolation move past Middleton that resulted in a three-point play. Butler scored 23 points in 25 minutes; Middleton had 10.

The Bucks' other offseason score also made his presence felt. The biggest indicator of Milwaukee's growth as a franchise might have been prized free agent Greg Monroe signing a four-year max deal with the Bucks over the likes of New York, Los Angeles and Portland. Monroe's inside scoring will prove crucial to a Bucks team that averaged fewer than 98 points per game last season, and he looked fresh scoring six points in 17 minutes Tuesday night.

"It just shows that maybe we’re doing something right," Kidd said of Monroe choosing Milwaukee. "As much as sometimes it used to be about the city, (now) it’s about winning."

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Still, for a franchise being built around young talent blossoming, the cream of the crop in the Cream City is yet to be unwrapped. Chicago native Jabari Parker didn't play in Milwaukee's preseason opener, still a couple weeks away from game action after recovering fully from ACL surgery in January. When he does take the floor, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2014 draft will give Kidd another scorer and versatile forward at his disposal.

Parker practiced with the team in full last week and did "everything in training camp," so his return to the Bucks should come sooner than later.

"We want to make sure that when it is time for him to come back it’s not where he’s in and out, and he’s back for the long haul. So again, no rush," Kidd said. "He hasn’t had any setbacks, he’s competing at a high level. You see why he was the No. 2 pick. So we’re excited to have him back."

Excited. It seems to be a word thrown around in Milwaukee these days. Between 20-year-old sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo, who threw down an acrobatic dunk from nearly behind the backboard in the second quarter, rookie Rashad Vaughn (20 points on Tuesday) and John Henson, who signed a $44 million extension last week, the pieces are beginning to come together for the Bucks.

Suddenly the Central Division is no longer just a two-team race between the Bulls and Cavaliers. As they learn to win through the victories they'll now be expected to win this season, those expectations will only heighten. But with a surplus of young talent now holding valuable playoff experience gained through last year's playoff series with the Bulls, Kidd's group will embrace the new expectations they have for themselves.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”