The Bulls dropped their season series with the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 with a 111-98 road loss on Monday. Observations from a familiar-feeling defeat:
Kris Dunn is unafraid
Bulls’ opponents have recently begun to aggressively sag off Kris Dunn when set, routinely leaving him with oceans of space to operate with behind the 3-point arc.
But that hasn’t deterred Dunn from continuing to chuck. In January, his 3-point attempts per game is up to three (he had been hoisting 2.1 per contest in the first two months of the season). Today, he took three in the first quarter alone and finished the night 3-for-5 from deep, bringing his January 3-point percentage up to 34.3%, though that figure is skewed by tonight's performance.
Still, when smart, lengthy teams like Milwaukee employ this strategy to clog driving lanes, it throws a real wrench in a Bulls halfcourt offense already prone to stagnation. Zach LaVine suffered the most from it today. He didn’t score until hitting a 27-footer at the 2:02 mark of the first, missing all three of his prior attempts in heavy traffic in the paint. Dunn checked out on the next possession, and LaVine ended the period with 10 points. But the team’s spacing was off all game.
Turnovers and jump-shots kept the Bulls in it, but not forever
That LaVine spurt spurred the Bulls to a sharp-shooting first half, at least from deep. After starting 3-for-9 from long range, the visitors entered the break at 9-for-22 (40.9%), and also parlayed 15 Bucks turnovers into 19 points.
But their inefficiency inside the arc (9-for-24 in the paint in the first half) served as an omen. In a stretch that recalled these teams’ last meeting in Chicago, the Bucks sprinted out to a 17-4 run in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third, shooting 7-for-10 to the Bulls 2-for-9 (0-for-5 from three). Déjà vu all over again.
The Bulls did claw their way back and trailed only 84-77 entering the fourth, and it was 3-ball that resuscitated them. They shot 4-for-9 from deep in the latter part of the period, and also converted seven of seven attempts from the free throw line. But the Bulls never got closer than nine after the Bucks’ first bucket of the fourth quarter. They finished the game 14-for-48 (29.2%) from three, 20-for-44 (45.4%) from two and 37% from the field. The Bucks outrebounded them 49-39 and outscored them 60-38 in the paint.
"In [the Bucks'] six losses, teams have shot an average of 40 threes and made 17.5. We were on pace to do that in the first half," Jim Boylen said after the game. "Second half we didn't shoot it as well, we ended up making 14. So, that was pretty much our gameplan... I think our gameplan to play against them was solid, we just needed to make a few more of those open shots we had."
The defense was good enough to loosely hang around, forcing 23 turnovers by game’s end. But the Bucks’ paint-packing, hard closeout strategy worked to perfection — the Bulls missed some open looks, but the Bucks also forced a bunch of tough ones.
Fourty-eight 3-point attempts ties the Bulls’ franchise high for a game with the famed 4OT bout with the Hawks last season. Three of the Bulls’ six highest 3-point attempt games have come against the Bucks this season.
A step back for Lauri Markkanen
To be fair, no Bull outside of Thad Young (4-for-8 from three), LaVine (24 points, 8-for-9 from free throw line) and Dunn finished with stat lines that approached being positive. Still, Markkanen’s 8 points on 2-for-11 (0-for-7 from three) shooting was a regression from a solid 17 point outing against the Cavaliers on Saturday.
"He's okay, he's just working his way through it, he's just fighting," Boylen said when asked to assess Markkanen's confidence level. "He missed some shots that we know he can make. That happens."
All eight of Markkanen’s points came in the first half. He logged 15 minutes in the final two quarters, missing all five of his shots. Four of them were 3-point attempts. Markkanen has now gone scoreless in the second half of two of the Bulls' last three games.
"When you're feeling it and actually making shots it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going," Markkanen said. "A lot of our plays I screen-and-pop, so maybe get to the rim. But most of the time, I'm pretty good."
"I think I can do a lot of things, not just shoot threes, but obviously haven't been able to do that lately," he added. "So just gotta figure out the ways that I can actually attack the rim more and get to the free throw line. So, I need to figure out my spots."
The intent that the Bulls had in getting Markkanen involved against Cleveland wasn’t there today, and he can do more to assert himself, as well.
"I know he's gonna work, and he cares, and he's got high character and I believe in him. And our team believes in him," Boylen said.
Another reality check
Not much to lament here. The Bucks aren’t just a better team, they’re the best team in the league — potentially historically so. Antetokounmpo had a relatively quiet 28 point, 14 rebound, 10 assist triple-double, despite going 3-for-9 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers. Khris Middleton was 10-for-13 from the field and Kyle Korver poured in an impactful 12 points on 5-for-5.
"They've got a star player. They can beat you from the 3-point line, they can beat you free throw line and they can beat you defensively when they don't have a night when their scoring," Boylen said. "That's what championship-caliber teams look like."
The Bulls are now 1-18 against teams above-.500 and 3-8 in the month of January. Back home for Minnesota on Wednesday.
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