Bulls

Bucks stun flat Bulls, send series back to Milwaukee

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Bucks stun flat Bulls, send series back to Milwaukee

Joakim Noah walked up the sideline, yelling to himself as he headed to the bench, unable to figure out why the Milwaukee Bucks were methodically pulling away in a game that on paper should’ve been an easy win for the Bulls.

But as the Bucks have gained more and more confidence throughout this series, Game 5’s 94-88 decision was only shocking if you took into account things that wouldn’t faze either side.

The Bulls returning home to the United Center, a place the Bucks don’t feel intimidated by. Or the news about the Cleveland Cavaliers losing Kevin Love and J.R. Smith for the conference semifinals.

What mattered is the Bucks’ fearlessness and length and growing confidence, illustrated by the Bulls’ panic—or weary legs, according to their counterparts-- in the fourth quarter compared to the Bucks’ coolness.

Again jumping out to a 9-0 lead on the Bulls, stunning a crowd that was ready to look ahead and celebrate, forcing the Bulls to play from behind essentially all night, squashing a Bulls’ confident gameplan that didn’t revolve around “turn the ball over 28 times”.

[MORE BULLS: Kevin Love out for second round, Smith to miss two games]

They cut that in half with just 13. But unfortunately, the open shots they hit in Game 4 were nowhere to be found in Game 5, as they shot 34 percent from the field, punctuated by their horrid 7-for-30 performance in the fourth quarter, when they were desperately trying to string possessions together.

“We didn’t make shots,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It was turnovers last game; We got the turnovers down. But then we couldn’t make our threes. It’s a make of miss league. When you don’t make it, it’s not going to look good.”

It was an ugly performance from there, as they shot four of 22 from 3-point range, as the Bucks were content with Derrick Rose launch seven of them without success, part of a five for 20 evening.

Rose was met with a wall of Bucks’ defenders all evening, as he didn’t commit the fatal error at the buzzer—he just made a bevy of them all night (six turnovers) and struggled with his shot.

His partner in “MVP” chants, Jimmy Butler, didn’t fare much better, shooting five for 21, compiling a nice stat line of 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but he knew that was misleading.

[WATCH: Bulls know they need to learn from their mistakes]

"I’m supposed to be the primetime defensive guy and I haven’t guarded a soul,” Butler said. “I’m worried about offense too much."

Pau Gasol had his first primetime game of the series, with 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but didn’t have much help. Bench scorers Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic didn’t impact the game, negated by the Bucks’ length and size the Bulls haven’t been able to reasonably counter.

Khris Middleton again quietly had a forceful night, scoring 21 on 16 shots, one of the few Bucks who shot well as they mustered only 18 points in the fourth, shooting 39 percent but remarkably kept the Bulls at bay. The Bulls planned to leave Zaza Pachulia open and he made them pay, hitting a couple circus midrange shots that quelled Bulls’ runs, and OJ Mayo incited the wrath of the Bulls’ crowd and the players, getting into a couple scrums that could’ve redirected the Bulls’ focus.

After Butler and Noah scored inside with 8:32 left to cut the Bucks’ lead to three, they were expected to fold.

But they regrouped, quickly pushed the lead back to 86-77 a minute later after Noah missed two point-blank layups and survived another Bull run a few minutes later, turning them back with their relentless defense led by Giannis Antetokoumnpo and John Henson’s shot blocking until the Bulls had nothing left.

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“Just growing. Growing up,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “Going through these games in the regular season (was) a dress rehearsal.”

And now they’re no longer naïve or fearful, able to absorb the emotion the Bulls inconsistently dished out while staying consistent.

Michael Carter-Williams looked Rose right in the face, repeatedly taking any and everybody to the basket for his 22 points, to go along with his nine assists, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Not even an ankle sprain that left him questionable in the third quarter was going to stop him, as he returned, completing a night where all 10 of his field goals were in the Bulls’ paint.

 “He hit a lot of tough shots,” Rose said. “Shots that he hit, I tried not to foul, I put my arms up and he kept banking them. It’s the first game he hit that many shots. Tough shots but he made them, so I’ll make an adjustment next time.”

They knew they were going home no matter what after Game 5, they just made the decision to take the Bulls back to Milwaukee with them for what should be a raucous Game 6 Wednesday night.

What to watch for: Bulls host Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors

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USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls host Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors

The Bulls welcome the Raptors, currently on a three-game losing streak, to the United Center on Monday. It is the second game in as many nights for each team. The matchup tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago; unitl then, here's what to watch for:

Raptors last five (2-3)

  • Dec. 8 — L at 76ers: 110-104

  • Dec. 5 — L vs. Rockets: 119-109

  • Dec. 3 — L vs. Heat: 121-110 (OT)

  • Dec. 1 — W vs. Jazz: 130-110

  • Nov. 29 — W at Magic: 90-83

Storyline(s) for each team

Both of these teams enter tonight on the back-end of back-to-backs — the Raptors got essentially trounced by the 76ers (they didn’t pull to within single digits until the game’s final two minutes) in Philadelphia Sunday night, and are riding a three-game losing streak into Chicago, overall. It’s a slight reality check for a team that began its first post-Kawhi Leonard campaign 15-4, but all three defeats came against good-to-great teams. There’s no real reason to believe that, tonight, Toronto can’t put forth a performance similar to the 108-84 drubbing they handed the Bulls at the United Center on Oct. 26 (a game in which the Bulls’ leading scorer was Wendell Carter Jr. with 12 points). 

The Bulls are coming off a gut-wrenching overtime loss to the Heat that left some reasons for optimism, but ultimately stung as much as the defeats that preceded it (perhaps even more so). Neither Otto Porter Jr. nor Chandler Hutchison appear any closer to returning, and the team’s best players remain hot-and-cold on a night-to-night basis. The Bulls have demonstrated an ability to compete with teams of this quality, but a win tonight remains a tough proposition.

Player to watch: Pascal Siakam

Even in limiting Jimmy Butler to 3-for-14 shooting on Sunday, his game-high 21 free throw attempts and the gravity he attracted down the stretch (which freed up Tyler Herro to get going) were a reminder that the Bulls still sorely miss their big wings in Porter and Hutchison.

Want another reminder? Enter: Pascal Siakam. In the absence of Leonard, Siakam is currently making the leap of all leaps, averaging 24.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on 46/36.5/81.6 shooting splits. He’s bumped his volume substantially (20.1 field goal and 6.2 3-point attempts per game) and taken on an increased number of pull-ups and drives, at the expense of catch-and-shoots (i.e. he’s creating his own offense).

 

Though he’s slightly cooled off over the Raptors’ aforementioned losing streak (38.9% shooting in his last three games), a trip to Chicago could represent a get-right game for the Raptors’ best player. The forward combination of him and OG Anunoby also presents difficult defensive matchups for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, given that the Bulls will probably continue to roll with a three-guard starting lineup.

Matchup to watch: Transition (and everything that comes with it)

The Raptors are a high-octane group that plays with breakneck pace. They shoot the second-highest percentage on 3-pointers in the NBA (38.7%) on the seventh-most attempts per game (36.5), rank eighth in the NBA in steals per game (Bulls are first) and relish the opportunity to get out on the break.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors convert live rebounds into transition opportunities at the second-highest clip in the NBA (36%, trailing only the Bucks). The Bulls (32.4%) are sixth in that category, though the Raptors score on said possessions with greater efficiency. The Raptors (sixth) and Bulls (seventh) also rank among the league’s best in percentage of steals converted into transition possessions. We know this will be an up-and-down affair — what remains to be seen is which team can win the rebounding and turnover battles, and thus afford themselves more opportunities to get out, run and dictate the flow of the game.

The Raptors wore the Bulls down in most of these areas the last time these two matched up, out-rebounding the Bulls 65-56 and winning the transition points battle 25-7 (each team had nine steals) on Oct. 26. Even potentially without Fred VanVleet (who left Toronto’s Sunday night game with a knee injury), Toronto has the personnel to win this matchup again, between elite ball-pusher and outlet-passer Kyle Lowry, the fast, rangy and physical Siakam/Anunoby duo and ancillary sparkplugs like Normal Powell and Terence Davis. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka won’t make the Bulls’ lives easy on the glass, either.

Trends to watch

  • It’s only a four-game sample size, but Lauri Markkanen is averaging 19.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on 50.9% shooting (13.3 attempts) and 43.2% from three (9.2 attempts) in the month of December. Even that stretch has had its ups and downs, but it’s worth monitoring if he’s able to continue his generally positive upward trend against a big, physical and talented Raptors frontcourt.

  • Coby White played all but eight seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime in Miami on Sunday, closing over Tomas Satoransky. He shot 2-for-5 (both makes on 3-pointers) in those minutes, dishing out three assists and also committing two turnovers. Still, he looked like he belonged out there. Boylen has gone back-and-forth on rolling with the starters versus the ‘hot-hand’ down the stretch, but White certainly benefits from a developmental perspective from that type of increased responsibility. 

  • Kyle Lowry returned from a thumb injury that cost him about a month on Dec. 3, and in the three games since his return, he’s played 41, 42 and 38 minutes, respectively. So much for easing back in. With VanVleet likely out, his workload probably won’t lighten in this one, except in the event of a blowout (certainly plausible). Lowry’s a great player, but he’s shooting 35% since returning, including a 2-for-18 shooting night in his first game back.

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NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14-game win streak

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USA Today

NBA power rankings: Antetokounmpo and Bucks keep up 14-game win streak

With the NBA season hitting the quarter pole, it’s a good time to check in on how the MVP race is shaping up.

After blowing a two games to none lead against Toronto in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo vowed to come back better than ever this season, and he’s done exactly that, improving his averages in points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage.

The one knock on Antetokounmpo had been his lack of a consistent outside shot, and while he’s still only shooting 31.6% from beyond the arc, he’s made at least three shots from long distance in three of his last seven games.

The Bucks are currently riding a 14 game winning streak after blowing out a very good Clippers’ team at Fiserv Forum last Friday. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers even joked about the result, saying, “It was Giannis’ 25th birthday, and we searched all over the city to find a gift, and we couldn’t find one, so we gave him this one. That’s all I can come up with because we were awful.”

Antetokounmpo still has to prove he can get the Bucks to the Finals, but through the first 23 games, he’s clearly the favorite to win his 2nd straight MVP award.

LeBron James’ Lakers are actually a half game ahead of the Bucks for the NBA’s best record at the start of the new week. James leads the NBA in assists, something that hasn’t been done by a player who doesn’t play the guard position since Wilt Chamberlain. James would rank 2nd on my MVP rankings at the quarter pole.

I wrote about Luka Doncic in last week’s power rankings, and after averaging a triple double in November and leading the Mavericks to an unexpected strong start in the West, Luka would be number three, followed by NBA scoring leader James Harden and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.

Now on to this week’s rankings. Check them out here.