The Bulls kicked off a gureling stretch of their schedule with a 123-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Here's some observations:

Wendell Carter Jr. put a scare into fans

Just over two minutes into the game, Wendell Carter Jr. abruptly exited during a pair of Giannis Antetokounmpo free throws. 

As of this writing, the exact reason for his foray to the locker room isn’t clear, but Bulls fans didn’t have to hold their breath too long. By the 5:40 mark of the first quarter, Carter was back. He finished the night with 10 points and 11 rebounds in 28:20.

The shooting told the story

It was apparent from the jump that this was a game the Bulls were going to live and die by the 3. In the first quarter, there was a firmly-sealed lid on the basket — the hosts finished the opening frame 9-for-29 from the field and 2-for-11 from 3, and trailed 31-20 after 12 minutes.

Then, in the second, the Bulls knocked down 8 of 13 3-pointers, outscoring the Bucks 32-24 the period to pull within 55-52 at the half. The Bulls shot 10-for-24 from deep in the first half compared to the Bucks’ 1-for-14, which is good, but the Bucks shot 15 free throws over that stretch to the Bulls’ … 0. That disparity ended 24-8 in favor of Milwaukee. (The Bulls lobbied the refs early and often, but ultimately, there’s a gulf between these two teams in terms of physicality.)

 

Lauri Markkanen serves as something of a microcosm here. He started the game active and engaged, scoring 14 points and snaring 4 rebounds in the first half. But of his 10 field goal attempts, eight of them were 3s. Granted, he was 4-for-8 on them, but he tallied only 4 points in the second half on 1-for-2 shooting. He also, in strange and typical fashion, rode the bench for extended stretches — even when he was 'on.' 

The Bucks pulled away with a 40-25 third (which they started on a 17-4 run), shooting 5-for-8 from deep compared to the Bulls’ 2-for-10. The Bulls ended the night 17-for-44 from behind the arc and 23-for-63 from 2-point range.

Coby White was special, for a time

Nobody brings the [2019 Bulls version of] the United Center to life quite like Coby White. In that aforementioned second quarter, he scored 13 points and canned three 3-pointers (which he hit on back-to-back-to-back possessions), looking about as special as he has all season.

 

And, for White, at least, it wasn’t just the shooting. Perhaps most encouraging to his overall development, White flashed some crafty handling and finishing, as well.

 

He finished the night with 18 points and no turnovers, though his shooting did regress in the second half. Regardless, It was a well-timed outing for him on the heels of an up-and-mostly-down December.

Giannis and Co. got their licks in

Antetokounmpo wasn’t transcendent tonight (23 points, 10 rebounds, 8-for-14 shooting, 27:22 minutes), because he didn’t have to be. But he rattled his fair share of rims and sapped the life out of Bulls’ spurts when he needed to, scoring 9 of his points in that pivotal third quarter.

 

The Bucks got contributions from everyone: Khris Middleton poured in 25 points, Eric Bledsoe and Donte DiVincenzo 15 apiece, Ersan Ilyasova a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) and even Pat Connaughton had 10 rebounds and a highlight-reel putback jam.

Phase one of season-defining stretch a no contest

It’s hard to fault the Bulls too much for losing (even losing badly) to these Bucks. They’re the best team in the NBA, after all. But a win could have meant so much — a winning month, a caveat-free victory, a validation of the progress made in December — and now, the night is naught.

The Bulls’ third-rated defense entering the night allowed 123 points and 54.8% shooting. The Bucks out-ran (16-10 on the fastbreak), outboarded (59-43) and outmuscled (50-42 in points in the paint) them tonight. This step back is all that much harder to swallow with a gauntlet of a January awaiting them when the calendar flips on 2019.