After narrowly falling to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in Milwaukee last Thursday, the Bulls welcome them to the United Center Monday night. The game tips off on NBC Sports Chicago at 7 p.m. CT — until then, here’s what to watch for:
1. Regression to the mean — on both sides
The Bulls knew in the moment that their “frustrating” 124-115 loss to the Bucks last Thursday represented a massive missed opportunity. Sure, there were positives to take away: In the game, the Bulls shot 18-of-43 (41.9%) from 3-point range to the Bucks’ 6-of-33 (18.2%) and turned Milwaukee over 22 times.
The downside? All of those figures are (or are tied for) single-game worsts for the Bucks this season and aren’t likely to repeat. Granted, there are areas where the Bulls might see positive regression, as well. The 20 turnovers they committed in that game — for instance — is their season-high, Wendell Carter only played 20 minutes due to persistent foul trouble and the Bucks’ 70-32 points-in-the-paint advantage remains downright unfathomable, even for an elite interior team.
But if the extremes from their last meeting even marginally level out, the Bucks will probably have the edge. To keep this one competitive, the Bulls will need to stay out of foul trouble (good luck), rotate and close out decisively, and hope for better 3-point luck than in Saturday’s game against the Nets, when they shot 9-for-39 (23.1%) from distance.
2. “Basketball karma”
The Bulls will.
“It is what it is,” Thad Young said in reference to Eric Bledsoe’s post-buzzer dunk Thursday night after the game. “It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”
When asked about the play, Kyle Korver confessed to believing in, “basketball karma.”
Monday night, the Bulls will have to make their own karma on their home floor. Each of their last two losses have featured a litany of untimely turnovers, lost loose balls and defensive breakdowns, especially late in the game. If Young is to be believed, the Bulls — a team that typically takes care of the rock and ranks well in most hustle stats — should come into this one laser-focused and ready to compete against a (still) undermanned Bucks squad.
Avoiding the second-half swoon
Key in that last point, though, will be not over-exerting themselves out of the gate. At the risk of stating the obvious: These Bulls are a bad second-half team, and at the heart of that issue has been the defense. These (select) first/second half splits are… illustrative:
First half: 98.7 Def Rtg, 43.7 opp FG% (28.7 3P%), 73.7 Def Reb%, +1.5 point differential
Second half: 114.0 Def Rtg, 48.5 opp FG% (36.7 3P%), 69.7 Def Reb%, -4.8 point differential
That dissonance was on full display on Thursday, as the Bucks flipped a one-point halftime deficit into a nine-point victory. The bright side for Chicago is that, even in running away with that game, the Bucks weren’t devastatingly efficient shooting or distributing the ball — the contest flipped in the paint and at the charity stripe. An extra burst of energy from playing on their home floor, combined with a focus on defensive discipline, could turn the Bulls’ fortunes in the rematch.
4. Finding fluidity on offense
Even in a disappointing defeat, that first matchup against the Bucks was one of the Bulls more impressive — albeit streaky — offensive performances of the season. In it, they racked up 25 assists, hoisted 43 3-point attempts and utilized a lot of movement off screens and dribble-drives to generate good looks:
They clawed their way back into Saturday’s game against the Nets on the back of a 36-point night from Zach LaVine, but the team’s offense often stagnated. Their 15 assists against Brooklyn was a season-low.
The Bulls know their best offense comes when they’re moving the ball, moving themselves and playing together. Against one of the top defenses in the league in Milwaukee, it will be worth monitoring if the Bulls devolve into iso-heavy offense when times are tough, or if they can draw upon past successes and fully lean into the offense Jim Boylen wants them to run.
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