Milwaukee Bucks

Observations from Bulls-Bucks: Closer Dunn, Defender Nwaba, Niko and Hoiball(!)

Observations from Bulls-Bucks: Closer Dunn, Defender Nwaba, Niko and Hoiball(!)

Dunn, the closer: It was an amazing sight but one that isn’t all too surprising if you’ve seen Kris Dunn play over the past few weeks—attacking a defender late in a game for a layup.

Except the defender was one of the longest and perhaps most athletic player in the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Dunn repeatedly attacking Antetokounmpo when they were matched up in the fourth quarter, as opposed to ceding to Antetokounmpo’s length.

Rocking the ball from right to left, he gathered momentum toward the rim and finished with his off-hand for a creative finish with 53.8 seconds left to give the Bulls a 111-104 lead.

“I feel like I had the matchup,” Dunn said. “I wanted to be aggressive the whole game. He’s long and athletic, but I thought I could get at his feet and that’s what I tried to do.”

The intelligence in that statement, realizing if there’s a place to attack a player like Antetokounmpo, it would be his feet. It helped complete perhaps one of Dunn’s most complete games as a pro, with 20 points, 12 assists, four steals and two blocks.

Dunn had four turnovers, but three of them occurred in the first quarter—a period where he had six assists. With a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, it’s a lot easier to swallow—in fact, the turnovers mean next to nothing when you take care of the ball late and finish the way he does to close out games.

“He didn’t settle,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought he did a good job of attacking and getting into the paint. He had really good finishes tonight.”

More important than helping the Bulls win their eighth game in 10 tries was the way he bounced back after their Saturday night loss to the Celtics in Boston. He took the loss on the chin and instead of it spiraling to a place where bad performances repeat themselves, Dunn washed it away.

“We’re resilient,” Dunn said. “Each and every game we’re trying to improve as a team.

“Me trying to be a leader, I had to show them I could be positive. I can’t have my head down. This team believes in me. I’m gonna keep being aggressive.”

Nwaba, the stopper: Antetokounmpo had two fouls midway through the second quarter and was playing with fire, barreling into David Nwaba on a fast break, hitting him square in the stomach.

The officials swallowed their whistles as Nwaba was doubled over catching his wind after Antetokounmpo’s layup.

The superstar calls are a way of life in the NBA and Antetokounmpo has earned that treatment. Nwaba will have to make his living absorbing plays like that, knowing the benefit of the doubt won’t go his way in most cases—while still having to crowd the superstar wing men of the league to make life difficult.

“It’s exciting, so I enjoy it,” Nwaba said. “It’s nothing I need to prepare for. I just need to know what I can bring to the table and know I have to lock in.”

Nwaba’s lock-in turned to a lockdown of the NBA’s second-leading scorer in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo made his first five shots from the field and scored 24 in the first three quarters, but didn’t register in the score sheet in the fourth until there was 2:11 remaining—and the Bulls led by 9.

“People don’t realize how strong he is,” Dunn said. “He’s a muscle-head. Props to him for taking on that role and trying to make it difficult for him.”

It didn’t go unnoticed by Nwaba’s coach, either.

“Nwaba does a good job, you’re not going to complete stop (Antetokounmpo),” Hoiberg said. “Giannis is going to be in the MVP talk all season long. But David isn’t going to back down from anybody.”

Niko, again? Yes, again: The pump fake was back, although Nikola Mirotic wasn’t using it on every single possession. But the relentlessness remained and the confidence is overflowing from Mirotic, who led the Bulls with 24 points.

Eight of those came in the fourth when the Bulls outscored the Bucks 32-23. Mirotic hit a couple back-breaking jumpers from ball movement, unbothered by Antetokounmpo running out at him.

“All this work is from practice. We’ve been practicing great as a team,” Mirotic said. “You can see the chemistry of the team is a little different. Everybody knows his role, knows what he needs to do. Defensively we are improving.

“We are finally learning how to play with each other. This has a lot to do with Fred. Calling the right call each time. The team is executing very well.”

Averaging over 18 points and nearly eight rebounds, it mitigates the regression of rookie Lauri Markkanen, who watched the critical moments of the fourth quarter from the bench.

Markkanen, who used to be the lone dependable starter, was now the only starter not in double figures, going one of seven in 20 minutes. But Markkanen grabbed seven rebounds and had his first taste of being defended by Antetokounmpo.

He’ll learn.

Wait, what?

So let’s see: The Bulls had eight turnovers to the Bucks’ 20—and four of the Bulls turnover came in the first quarter….

Five Bulls scored in double figures and none of them were named LaVine or Markkanen…

Their best plus-minus performer didn’t score in double figures and according to the advanced stats, makes everyone better around him (Bobby Portis)…

It was Portis who grabbed Kris Dunn and kept him from getting into it even more with Bucks swingman Khris Middleton when both got tangled up in the final minute, going to the floor…

“Peace and love, that’s what I’m all about,” Portis said with a smile….

It was also Portis who swatted a shot into the expensive seats after a whistle had been blown, Kevin Garnett-style, prompting a smile from Hoiberg on the bench…

Was that Jerian Grant playing aggressive in the fourth quarter against Eric Bledsoe?...

And this Bulls team, being scrappy, playing confident, tough and sharing the ball to the tune of 26 assists—averaging 26.1 assists in their last 10 games?

That’s Hoiball.

Bobby Portis' big fourth carries the Bulls to five in a row

Bobby Portis' big fourth carries the Bulls to five in a row

The Bulls didn’t own any face cards and certainly don’t carry anything like a big joker in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo or even a small joker like Khris Middleton, a budding All-Star.

But sometimes Jacks can walk across a table, and Bobby Portis strutted all through the BMO Harris Bradley Center Friday night for his best game as a pro.

He flexed, he preened and for the second straight fourth quarter, he gave the Bulls the ultimate pick-me-up in the form of 13 of his career-high 27 points as they continued their improbable run with a 115-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

If you’re counting, it makes the Bulls the first team to have a five-game winning streak immediately following a double-digit losing streak as that 10-game march to the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s ocean feels like worlds ago.

Friday’s win proved to be perhaps the toughest during this streak, against a team that wants to be the future of the East and employs the future’s most devastating prospect in Antetokounmpo.

But Portis showed why 25 teams were interested in his services while he served his eight-game suspension nearly two months ago, and also why the Bulls had no desire to move him.

“I thought Bobby was the difference in getting that game turned around,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We did not come out sharp.”

The Bulls trailed by 10 in the opening minutes when Portis entered and within five minutes, the deficit was erased and the Bulls owned a 28-22 surplus. There wasn’t much breathing room in the fourth quarter before Portis went to work on the offensive glass—and on Antetokounmpo in the post.

“We’re very confident, we’re all playing on one accord, playing for each other,” Portis said. “I feel like our unity is at an all-time high.”

“Everybody knows their role. We’ve had a whole new team, starting the season off with everything, it takes time. Everybody knows their independent roles and it’s been big for us.”

And Portis’ role has evolved into being a go-to guy and a source of confidence that was missing when the Bulls were losing 10 straight while having their energy and fervor questioned.

“It’s been fun up until this point, playing the game I love,” Portis said. “I think it’s my first time winning five straight games since I’ve been in the league.”

Portis was only slightly off, as the Bulls won six straight games in Portis’ rookie year of 2015-16, also Hoiberg’s maiden run with the franchise.

But now Portis and even Hoiberg look like seasoned veterans, comfortable in their own skin, attacking the night and circumstances to turn matters into a win-win.

Every time the sluggish Bucks seemed to get it together, Portis had an answer, with a putback or an elbow jumper, or drawing enough attention to clear the lane for a Kris Dunn layup.

“It’s what it’s all about, responding when you’re challenged,” Hoiberg said. “We knew it would be a physical, tough game against a blue-collar team. Just a really good, gritty win. I saw a lot of growth in our guys.”

If there’s anyone who represents the level of gritty on the Bulls roster, David Nwaba would win that without much protest. So it’s no surprise Hoiberg sicced the undersized Nwaba on Antetokounmpo to start the second half in place of Denzel Valentine.

Giving up at least seven inches to Antetokounmpo, he took the task with pride and knowing it’s the best way he’ll stick on this team or any team in the NBA is by doggedly taking the toughest covers and making their lives miserable.

“He’s a tough guard, an All-Star and a great player,” Nwaba said. “I did the best I could, I try to be aggressive as much as possible.”

Antetokounmpo only took two shots in the fourth quarter while finishing a point below his average with 29 points and 16 rebounds. Nwaba and the Bulls kept the Bucks out of the paint in the fourth quarter and had them playing from behind through most of it.

“We thought David was the only guy that had a chance of even slowing him down a little bit,” Hoiberg said. “You’re not gonna shut him down but David, I thought, made him work for everything he got in that second half.”

Middleton matched Antetokounmpo with 29 points but the Bucks’ bench couldn’t match the Bulls’, with Portis and Nwaba pacing things. Nikola Mirotic continued his personal streak, scoring 22 points with eight rebounds as he started again in place of Lauri Markkanen, who didn’t make the trip due to his back spasms.

Robin Lopez scored 18 with eight rebounds—including six on the offensive end that kept the Bucks from getting out on the break and unleashing Antetokounmpo in the open floor.

“I have really good confidence in myself. I struggled in the beginning,” Mirotic said.

The old Mirotic would’ve been useless for the rest of the game, pump-faking himself into oblivion. But he admitted he’s heard the calls from the media and fans to ditch the pump-fake, to play definitively.

“I tell myself, ‘Don’t worry Niko, just play it simple’,” Mirotic said. “If the shot isn’t falling, try to make the extra pass.”

The extra pass wasn’t necessary in the second half, especially when he hit a triple with 2:42 left to give the Bulls a 109-104 lead, three of his 16 second half points. When he made a tough catch for a layup and foul, the first person yelling in joy and hitting him with a chest bump was Portis.

“Wow, it’s been crazy to be honest,” Mirotic said. “We did play last year a little bit together but it’s not the same now. We both step up and I think we learn how to play with each other. We need to give credit to Fred for that. From my side, I’m just wishing that we continue what is best for the team.”

Mirotic was asked for any more predictions and he replied with a quick smile.

"Six-and-(zero)," he said, with the Philadelphia 76ers coming to Chicago Monday.

Someone alert Joel Embiid, this could be fun.

The Bucks' mini season ticket plan includes an epic Bulls troll

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USA TODAY

The Bucks' mini season ticket plan includes an epic Bulls troll

Apparently the Bucks are still upset over the physical playoff series against the Bulls in 2015.

Whoever is running the team's website and, more specifically, putting together season ticket packages has a sense of humor when it comes to the Bulls rebuild.

Fans pick the games they want to attend, and the Bucks attach the opponent's star player to the box. Here's an example for the first set of selections:

Hey, look! There's Rookie of the Year frontunner Ben Simmons. Go see five-time All-Star Blake Griffin, or superstar John Wall!

The next set of options also included some of the best young players in the game, as well as some future Hall-of-Famers in Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki:

This could be your last chance to see Carter and Nowitzki. Kristaps Porzingis vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo could be the most exciting matchup in basketball. Anthony Davis has reached super stardom, and Bulls fans know what Jimmy Butler can do when he gets hot.

Then Bucks fans can pick one more game from this group. See if you notice anything:

Wow, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving! Flashy rookie Lonzo Ball. Two MVP candidates in Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.

And.

Bulls mascot Benny the Bull.

Well played, Milwaukee Bucks. Well played.

With Zach LaVine still out - he could be back by December 15 - and Lauri Markkanen relatively unknown to the casual NBA fan the Bucks had a little fun with this one.

Who knows? Maybe the Bulls will use this as motivation for their matchup in a month.