Bulls

Bucks get physical in an attempt to swing series with Bulls

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Bucks get physical in an attempt to swing series with Bulls

Though they wouldn't admit wanting to send a message, the Milwaukee Bucks proved in Game 2 they won't be backing down from the Bulls.

Lacking for physicality in a Game 1 loss, Jason Kidd's youthful group showed off some veteran-like playoff chippyness on more than one occasion, earning four technical fouls in an attempt to shift the pace of the series back to what made them successful in the regular season. It didn't result in a win, as the Bulls topped Milwaukee with a 91-82 victory to take a 2-0 lead, but if anything the Bucks provided themselves a blueprint on how to keep themselves in the series and that playing their own brand of basketball can be successful.

"That's the way they play so it's the way we have to play," Khris Middleton said of the physicality. "We have to play intense and put up a fight."

The first sign of increased intensity came early in the second quarter, when Aaron Brooks attempted to draw a charge in the open court on John Henson. Henson collided with Brooks, who was called for a blocking foul, and stood over the Bulls reserve guard. Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah quickly came to Brooks' defense, and before the two teams eventually were separated Butler and O.J. Mayo had gone face-to-face jawing at each other. Henson, Mayo, Butler and Noah all were assessed technical fouls.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

In the second half Mayo collided with Butler while running down the floor, earning a personal foul in the process. That set the stage for Zaza Pachulia, who with 4 minutes remaining elbowed Nikola Mirotic in the head, earning a technical foul after the Bucks had closed within five points. Two possessions later both players went to the ground after a loose ball, and after Pachulia grabbed possession and passed from the ground he was shoved in the back by Mirotic. The two players had to be separated before both earning technicals, with Pachulia's second resulting in an ejection.

"It's playoff basketball," said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. "You have the same teams going at it. A lot of it is will, determination, how bad do you want it? It's sort of the nature of the business."

In two game the Bucks have attempted to shake the notion that they're just a young team that will be satisfied with the future payoff of gaining playoff experience now. The added physicality that boiled over into scrums stemmed from an attempt to play more of their style: an ugly, offensive struggle. The Bucks aren't going to win the series on talent alone, squaring off against a Bulls team with a former MVP, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and a pair of 2015 All-Stars. It'll take these kinds of games for them to hang with a more talented group, and they know it.

"It was more for us than sending a message. (The Bulls) can take it however they want to, but for us what was missing in Game 1 was intensity and playing hard, especially on the defensive end," said Pachulia. "If you say it was a message that means we were successful."

[MORE: Big fourth quarter from Butler lifts Bulls to 2-0 series lead over Bucks]

They were successful in certain areas. The Bulls committed 15 turnovers, scored 11 points in the first quarter and Game 1 hero Derrick Rose went just 4-for-14 from the field. Milwaukee's continued double-teaming of Pau Gasol and pressuring Derrick Rose on high pick-and-rolls worked once again. In all the Bulls shot 38 percent from the field, and the Bucks were within striking distance before going ice-cold in the final 10 minutes.

"I thought we played a pretty good game, on the road giving ourselves an opportunity to win," Kidd said.

Still, they need more production to complement it. Shooting 35 percent from the field and handing out 13 assists on 32 made field goals is a recipe for failure, regardless of opponent or pace. Giannis Antetokounmpo struggled once again, going 2-for-11 from the field, while the Bucks as a team went silent from beyond the arc, going 4-for-17. After Kidd noted in pregame availaibility that his team needed to be better on the glass, the Bulls grabbed a franchise playoff record 64 rebounds.

In Game 1 the Bucks proved they weren't going to be satisfied with just showing up. Monday night they proved they could be the more physical team and wouldn't back down. But proving capable of winning isn't the same as actually doing it, setting the stage for a Game 3 on Thursday in Milwaukee with a chance to earn a victory. They'll need to play better from an X's and O's standpoint, but they're pleased with where they are mentally after proving their toughness in a gritty road loss.

"Playoff basketball, what do you expect? It’s going to be intense, it’s going to be physical," Mayo said. "We’ve got the team playing hard."

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

We all know what Zach LaVine is capable of doing on the offensive side of things. But what about his defense?

It's no secret that LaVine has had his fair share of struggles on defense, but Kris Dunn thinks highly of his 23-year-old teammate and what his potential is at the other end.

"On the defensive end I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast.'" Dunn said of LaVine. "And personally, I like to score. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet — maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.

"But I think he's been going a good job on the defensive end. It's not going to be easy. We all got to learn and I think we're all trying."

Improving his defense would obviously be a big step forward for LaVine (and the Bulls), and he knows it. 

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” LaVine said when assessing his preseason. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

LaVine and the Bulls travel to Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Thursday night in their season opener. You can watch Bulls Pre- and Postgame Live on NBC Sports Chicago before and after the game for highlights and analysis.

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

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USA TODAY

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

1. Provide help defense on Joel Embiid early and often. Embiid's high usage rate means going to score regardless, and has even added moves like a step-back jumper that he can go to comfortably from 15-feet. But if you make him see multiple defenders and force him to be unsettled, you can harass him into poor shooting nights like Boston did (Embiid shot 9-for-21 on Tuesday night). There were plays where as soon as Embiid took one or two dribbles, a help defender—even a guard—was flying in to go for block shot opportunities.

Wendell Carter Jr. earned the starting center job with his ahead-of-his-age defensive IQ, but no matter how ahead of the curve he is, stopping Embiid will take a group effort. He can become enamored with the 3-point shot, so the Bulls will have to work together to coax Embiid into taking poor shot attempts. Boston did a great job of denying him deep post position om Tuesday night, cutting off the Sixers' easiest source of offensive production.

Wendell Carter Jr. will get his first big defensive test on Thursday night, as he will have to use his lower body strength to prevent Embiid's low post dominance. We have seen Carter struggle with bigger low post scorers in the preseason, and if the Bulls don't provide help fast, Carter will be in trouble.

If Carter does what many rookies do, and tries to use his hands to stop Embiid from gaining ground, the referees will call a foul quickly, especially since he is a rookie learning the ropes. Helpside defense will be the difference in this game for the Bulls.

2. Get back quickly and build a wall on transition defense. Below is the combined shot chart of Embiid and Ben Simmons from Tuesday night against the Celtics. Notice where the attempts are mostly concentrated. 

Ben Simmons and Embiid like to put pressure on the opposing defense by putting pressure on the front of the basket, and with good reason. They are both dominant finishers in the paint and questionable outside shooters.

In 207-18 Embiid shot 57 percent when 0-3 feet from the basket, Simmons shot a staggering 83 percent in the 0-3 foot range, which is even more impressive when you consider that defenses are gameplanning for his drives. We all know that Simmons will likely never be an even average 3-point shooter, and Embiid shot a dreadful 25 percent from the 3-point line last season despite a career-high 214 attempts. But the above the break 3-point shot is a major part of the Philadelphia offense, with Embiid shooting a much better 30.4 percent on above the break 3-pointers. 

Chicago would be wise to let the Sixers get these shots. 

In transition Simmons (or Markelle Fultz) will run the break with Embiid trailing directly behind them, either looking for a straight-line drive to the basket or an above the break 3-pointer after their forward momentum has been stopped. 

If the Bulls can summon the words of former Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy and form a wall around the restricted area, they can wall off aggressive drives from the Sixers young, dynamic duo. The Bulls need to force this game to be about turnovers and free throw makes, areas in which the Sixers have struggled last season (dead-last in the league in turnovers and 23rd in FT percentage).

3. Force the defense to move side-to-side. Philadelphia had a top-five defensive rating last season, and a big reason for that was that while the Sixers would often switch one through four, they wouldn't switch the five, meaning Embiid was often dropping back on pick-and-roll D and stationing himself near the basket. Staying as close as possibe to the rim obviously is beneficial to the Embiid, who has averaged 2 blocks per game for his career. But when you get Philly's aggressive defense to shift, they try to jump passing lanes to ignite their fastbreak, which can lead to plays like this:

The above play contains the exact type of ball-movement and cutting principles that Fred Hoiberg has stressed throughout the preseason. Zach LaVine is the type of quick, explosive guard that the Sixers can have trouble containing with their personnel, more so that they are depending on Fultz so much. But if the Bulls get bogged down into a bunch of one-on-one play, it will allow Embiid to sit back and be a huge deterrent at the rim. Carter's ability to stretch the floor—along with Bobby Portis' shooting—should be enough of a threat to keep Embiid occupied, but if not he will not respect their shots, and simply clog up driving lanes.

Handoff plays contained some of Carter's best moments this preseason, so we should expect to see Hoiberg call for lots of plays that get a Bulls guard or wing attacking a backpedaling big.