The Bulls are 0-2 against the Bucks this season, but will face them again tonight. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
Bucks’ last five games (4-1)
Dec. 28 — W vs. Magic: 111-100
Dec. 27 — W at Hawks: 112-86
Dec. 25 — L at 76ers: 121-109
Dec. 22 — W vs. Pacers: 117-89
Dec. 21 — W at Knicks: 123-102
Storyline(s) to watch
Alright, Bulls. You’re 7-6 in December. You’ve got the 3rd-rated defense (?!) in the league. You’re 1.5 games out of the eighth seed. And now, the gauntlet begins.
Tonight’s game against the Bucks kicks off an 18-game stretch for the Bulls that features 10 opponents currently above .500. Unfortunately, 33 games into the season, the Bulls are 1-11 against such opponents. All empirical and sociological markers of growth from December are about to be put to the test.
The burning question for tonight’s game was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s availability, but he's been listed as available. Antetokounmpo missed the Bucks’ past two games (wins over the Magic and Hawks) with a back injury. His return will be the greatest challenge yet for the Bulls’ new-look starting unit, which sports a 100.3 defensive rating in 14 games since Kris Dunn's insertion. Aside from being the reigning league MVP (and, at this point, this year’s MVP, too), Antetokounmpo is averaging 35.5 points, 13 rebounds and 16 free throw attempts per game against the Bulls this season. Lauri Markkanen has drawn the lion's share of time guarding him in the previous two meetings, with splashes of Wendell Carter Jr. and Thad Young, as well.
Bottom line: The Bucks have been the best team in the NBA this season, and even aside of Antetokounmpo, the Bulls will have their hands full with the steady Khris Middleton, revived George Hill, Lopez brothers, Eric Bledsoe and a host of others. This is a big game. And these aren’t the Hawks.
Player to watch: Khris Middleton
Middleton might be on his way to a second consecutive All-Star berth, averaging 18.7 points and 5.6 rebounds on 49/40.8/89.7 shooting splits, and he stepped up big time in Antetokounmpo’s absence. It’s obviously a miniscule sample size, but in the two games Antetokounmpo missed, Middleton averaged 18 field goal attempts (compared to his season average of 14.3) and 7 assists per game (season average 3.8).
His craft coming around screens and in isolation can be deadly, and is likely to give this wing-strapped Bulls team fits. Middleton missed both of these teams’ previous two meetings.
As an aside, Ersan Ilyasova slid into Antetokounmpo’s place in the starting lineup, and his play warrants mentioning, as well. He shot 13-for-18 from the field and 7-for-8 from three and averaged an uncharacteristic 15.5 rebounds per game in the Bucks’ last two. Still, Lauri Markkanen would undoubtedly fare better in a matchup with him than he has in two meetings with Antetokounmpo this season.
Matchup to watch: Shot profile
The Bucks are long, uber-athletic and adept at protecting the basket — they allow the fewest restricted area field goal attempts per game in the NBA (23.7) and league-low 54.3% shooting on such attempts. The Bulls, mind you, take the second-most restricted area field goal attempts per game (32.5) and shoot a league-worst 58.2% from that range.
In protecting the rim so stringently, the Bucks do sacrifice a bit around the arc, allowing opponents to shoot 36.7% from 3-point range (22nd in the NBA) on 38.4 3-point attempts per game (29th). It’s no coincidence, then, that the Bulls have shot a combined 30-for-77 from deep (39%) in their two meetings this season.
But the Bucks have the top-rated defense in the league for a reason. If turnovers don’t abound or jumpers aren’t falling, it will be interesting to see where the Bulls turn for offense tonight, especially if they get repeatedly stonewalled on the interior. The Bucks also rank in the top five in rebounds and blocks per game.
Nuggets to watch
A win tonight would clinch the Bulls’ first winning month (8-6) since Dec. 2017
Interestingly enough, the Bulls haven’t beaten the Bucks since Dec. 26, 2017, losing eight straight against their division rivals
George Hill is leading the NBA shooting a preposterous 53% from 3-point range on the season
Bucks list Giannis and Bledsoe as available vs. Bulls.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 30, 2019
Markkanen and Hutchison are questionable.
Wes Matthews is out with thigh contusion.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 30, 2019
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