Bucks offense stagnates with lack of passing in Game 2 loss


Bucks offense stagnates with lack of passing in Game 2 loss

Early in the third quarter of Game 2, second year swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo took a handoff from Zaza Pachulia on the left wing, dribbled for 6 seconds as the shot clock wound down and missed a 19-footer over Pau Gasol. It was one small sequence in a game the Bucks were competitive throughout, but also a microcosm of the poor offense they've displayed in the first two games of their series with the Bulls.

For a second straight game the defensive minded Bucks struggled from the field, scoring 82 points on a night in which their defense was good enough to earn a victory. And as was the case in Saturday night's loss, ball movement again was the culprit. After a Game 1 in which they passed more than 100 times less than their opponent, per NBA.com, the Bucks were stagnant with the ball in their hands, too often settled for jump shots and failed to capitalize in a game where they turned the ball over just four times. The Bucks finished with 13 assists on 32 made field goals, including two in the decisive fourth quarter of their 91-82 loss.

[MORE: Jimmy Butler comes up big in fourth quarter for Bulls]

It was a stark contrast to what made the Bucks successful this season, ranking 7th in the NBA in assists per game (23.4) and field goals made (62.4 percent). On a team with few, if any, isolation scorers ball movement was bound to be an important tactic against a Bulls defense not giving anything easy. Instead, they took open jumpers Tom Thibodeau's defense was clearly allowing them and didn't take advantage of aggressive run-outs on Chicago's 3-point defense.

"We’re not built like that," said shooting guard O.J. Mayo. "We’ve got to do a better job of creating shots for each other. Offensively 13 assists is not going to cut it."

Added Zaza Pachulia: "It’s terrible for our team, especially the way we’ve been playing all year long sharing the ball."

Still, the Bucks feel as though they're making strides. There were positives to take away from the loss, even on the offensive side of the ball. The four turnovers were a great sign from a team whose rotation features four players making their playoff debuts at 23 years old or younger.

Also, the Bucks were able to find their way into the lane, attempting 43 shots in the paint (though they made just 18 of those). Whereas their first quarter in Game 1, scoring 29 points, was a case of "fool's gold," as Jason Kidd put it, that got the Bucks into thinking they could compete in a shootout, Game 2 featured a slower, half court game where the two teams combined for just eight fast break points.

[RELATED: Bucks get physical in attempt to swing series vs. Bulls]

But ball movement will be the key that takes Milwaukee from simply competing late in games to closing contests out. It's an area in which the Bulls are perhaps playing their best; in the first two games the Bulls have assisted on a whopping 81 percent of their made field goals. That number has largely increased due to the Bucks double-teaming Pau Gasol throughout most of the series, with the Bulls rotating to find open shooters (24 made 3-pointers in the first two games) but it's an area the Bucks can exploit off dribble-drive penetration from Carter-Williams, Antetokounmpo and Mayo.

"We've got to take another step offensively, he said. "The ball's got to move from side-to-side and better shot selection for this young team. It's something we've got to learn on the fly."

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford won't rest on laurels stemming from breakout performance

Daniel Gafford’s phone blew up Monday night with congratulatory well wishes following his 21-point performance in his first game of meaningful NBA minutes.

But the Bulls’ rookie acted more like somebody focused on his next opportunity than addicted to social media or electronic devices.

“I put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ because I was trying to get sleep at the same time,” Gafford said following Tuesday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I was real sore from the game because I’ve been traveling a lot. I wanted to make sure I got the rest I needed for practice today.”

Gafford’s travel has been of the G League variety — bus rides, not five-star accommodations. More performances like his outing against the Bucks, though, and Gafford’s G League assignments may be over.

“What would help me is just try to remain consistent. I did that game, but I’ve got to be ready for the next,” Gafford said. “Enjoy it until midnight and then get ready for the next game the next day.”

The longer Gafford talked, the more his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached came out.

On setting good screens: “Fighting through that fatigue, it was just a mental thing. Just making sure I got contact on the screens because the coaches were telling me they were trying to slip up under my screen because I wasn’t really setting them. So I had to make sure I hit guys when I was coming up to set screens to get bottom hip so I could make sure I was getting guys open because that can help them. But at the same time it can help me as well.

On feedback from coaches: “Mostly it was just on the pick-and-roll with opposing teams. Just making sure I be up at the level to where guards don’t get downhill as much. Just make sure I’m up to where I can help our guards get back from where they’re setting screens. And be better on defensive rebounding.”

On feedback from teammates: “They were just talking about my dunks, really, pretty much. They were patting me on the back, telling me, ‘Good job' and telling me whenever I get my chance again, come out and do the same thing.’”

Ah, yes, those dunks. What did the United Center rims do to Gafford anyway? The six rim-rattling slams he threw down on the night were enough for him to field a question as to his favorite.

“Oh, the one-hand lob that I caught,” Gafford said. “I didn’t think I was going to catch that. I thought it was going to get some of the rim and come out. But it went down for me and I appreciate it for that.”

Gafford said his wrist “feels good” after all that rim wrecking because he’s “used to it.”

And somewhere, fellow Arkansas product Bobby Portis is smiling. Not only was there a #freeDanielGafford movement on Twitter, a la #freeBobbyPortis from Portis’ rookie season with the Bulls, but Gafford also dropped a third-person reference. Portis used to do that, too.

“Go out there and play Daniel Gafford basketball,” Gafford said, when asked for his mindset.

Coach Jim Boylen said Gafford plays “with a pure heart.” With 20-20 machine Andre Drummond in town with the Pistons Wednesday, expect Gafford to get more rotational minutes.

And as for that “Do Not Disturb” sign on his phone, it worked.

“I slept good,” Gafford said.

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What is going on with Lauri Markkanen?

USA Today

What is going on with Lauri Markkanen?

That is the question being asked around league circles as we approach the one month mark of the regular season. With the All-Star game being played in Chicago in February, the hope was Markkanen would take a big jump in his 3rd NBA season, and represent the home city in the showcase event.

Instead, the 22-year-old Finn is struggling through one of the worst shooting slumps of his young career through the first 14 games. Markkanen opened the season with a bang, scoring 35 points and pulling down 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte. But since that night, he’s only shot over 50% from the field in one other game and is sitting at 36.2% for the season, far off his career average of 42.6%. He’s been even worse from 3-point range shooting 26.8%, compared to his career norm of 35.2%.

And, it’s not like the Bulls haven’t been trying to get him going. In Monday’s loss to Milwaukee, Markkanen missed all four of his attempts from beyond the arc, most of them wide open looks.

Markkanen is making just over 25% of his wide open 3-point looks, which is classified by the NBA as a shot attempt with no defender within 6-feet. In case you were wondering, he made 43% of his wide open 3’s last season and 45% as a rookie.

Markkanen insists his confidence hasn’t wavered. “Shooters, all the players go through slumps” Markkanen told reporters in the post-game locker room Monday night. “Everybody’s broken through it at some point. When I’m staying confident, believing every shot’s going in, I know it’s going to turn around.”

But it’s not just the long range misses that have the Bulls concerned. Markkanen’s shooting woes seem to be affecting his all-around game, like this sequence against the Bucks late in the first half on Monday.

Markkanen had to deal with the length of Giannis Antetokounmpo on the first attempt, and in his anxiety to make good on the second try, he misses the dunk, something we’ve seen on a handful of occasions in recent games.

Even though Markkanen insists his shooting slump hasn’t affected his overall game, he’s also been less active on the defensive end, being overpowered inside and slow to help on drives to the basket.

It’s one thing for Giannis to score inside on Markkanen, it’s quite another to see Nets’ rookie Nicolas Claxton go strong to the basket for the and-one.

So, what can Markkanen do to shake the slump? Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen has often mentioned his third year forward seems to get energized by working hard on the defensive glass. Markkanen is more than capable of grabbing a rebound and taking it end to the end as he did on this play against the Nets last Saturday.

Markkanen has well above average ballhandling skills for a 7-footer, which makes him a dangerous weapon in transition. On this next play, he turns defense into offense at the expense of the reigning league MVP.

Watching plays like that, it’s pretty clear Markkanen’s issues aren’t physical. Boylen mentioned last week that Markkanen had been playing through a strained oblique, but Markkanen insisted it wasn’t an issue and felt fine physically.

Assuming Markkanen is healthy, his career numbers will tell you this shooting slump shouldn’t last much longer. Confidence is a funny thing for athletes, but the best thing Markkanen can do right now is stay aggressive on the offensive end and look for opportunities to get to the basket and draw fouls for some easy points.

Markkanen’s teammates have voiced their strong support for the young forward in recent days and you can count on them trying to set up him for more open looks.

After all, even though a remake of the Michael Jordan “Space Jam” movie is due out next year with LeBron James in the starring role, it’s not like the Monstars have stolen Markkanen’s ability to play basketball.

Markkanen summed up the state of his game very simply Monday night. “It’s not going to be like this forever. I don’t know what else to say.”

Everyone associated with the Bulls’ organization is counting on Markkanen to bust out of his slump with a series of big games very soon. 

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