Let’s not bury the lede here: Reality struck the United Center Monday night. Antlers first.
The Bulls staved it off for as long as they could. Down 11 to the Bucks after the first quarter, they responded with a red-hot 8-for-13 3-point shooting second and trailed 55-52 at the break. Coby White was humming, Lauri Markkanen was piecing together a second straight solid performance and the arena was alive. Some level of optimism, however cautious, was palpable.
The Bucks quashed that, at least for a night, with a third-quarter-opening onslaught that saw their lead swell from three to 16 in less than five minutes. They didn’t look back, taking the game 123-102.
“I thought they punched us pretty hard in the third, took control of the game,” Jim Boylen said. “We gave up layups and dunks and open threes. I thought we hung our head a little bit, we haven't done that in a while, we've played through those situations, and I thought tonight we did [hang our heads].”
The signs of the eventual outcome were there: Though the Bulls put up 52 points and shot 10-for-24 (41.7%) from 3-point range in the first half, an 11-for-31 clip from inside the arc loomed ominous. As did attempting zero free throws to the Bucks’ 15, despite persistent ref-lobbying from just about everyone in a red jersey.
“You really want me to comment on that? Well, I'm not gonna,” Boylen said of the free throw disparity. “I appreciate the question, but I'm not gonna. I don't make that kind of money to give it away.”
Another hint at the Bulls’ ultimate fate was tallying only three fastbreak points in the game’s first two quarters. By night’s end, a team that depends on generating turnovers and transition opportunities for offense parlayed 18 Bucks turnovers into nine points.
“Did think we forced turnovers again, didn’t convert like we liked,” Boylen said.
Give the Bucks credit there. At 30-5, they own the best record in the NBA, as well as the league’s No. 1-rated defense and No. 2-rated offense. This is more than a "quality" opponent. The Bucks' +13.2 average point-differential defies the very fabric of our reality, and their general competency didn’t allow the Bulls any cracks or soft spots to exploit.
“They're long, they're experienced, they're smart, so they understand the game,” Kris Dunn said. “For us, we just have to be a little more aggressive. We play our best basketball when we get stops and get out in transition, and we didn't get to do that tonight. We didn't get the stops that we need, and it's hard to score on a team like that that has a really good half-court defense.”
Dunn also called the Bucks the more physical group and stressed that urgency pervades the Bulls' locker room — both themes that ring familiar. As do these: The Bulls are now 1-12 against teams with at or above .500 records this season; for the 22nd time in 34 games, the Bulls were outrebounded (59-43) by their opponent; and for the 26th time, their opponent attempted more free throws than they did.
Shooting 38.6% on 44 attempts from the 3-point line is great, but not when you go 23-for-63 from inside the arc. In the third quarter that decided the game, the Bucks outscored the Bulls 40-25, shooting 71.4% (62.5% from three) to the hosts' 37% (20% from distance).
“There's gonna be ups and downs but our style of play and our execution has to still be there,” Zach LaVine said before the team’s matchup against the Hawks on Saturday. “We can’t just rely on making shots."
Again, credit the Bucks' transcendence on both ends of the floor (especially their paint-packing defensive strategy), but tonight remains a step in the wrong direction as far as that point of emphasis is concerned. The Bucks hit them hard and the Bulls ran out of counters.
“Everybody's pissed off. You should be,” Dunn said. “We've been playing well and I feel like Milwaukee gave us a little humble pie. We gotta be able to take that and go back to the drawing board and get back to work.”
All of this isn't as much a referendum as it is a reminder. After a month of either beating up on bad teams or competing with good ones — and building a reputation of a top-tier defense — it's a loss that, in many ways, defies the values these Bulls had been establishing. But that doesn't mean it has to define them.
"It's definitely tough," Dunn said. "Tonight we weren't us."
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