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."
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."