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.
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."
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.