Bulls

Bulls offense unable to solve versatile Bucks defense

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Bulls offense unable to solve versatile Bucks defense

What’s ugly and stagnant, slow as Chicago traffic in the middle of the day and painful to watch?

That’s right, the Bulls offense.

The Milwaukee Bucks have taken them out of anything they've wanted to do, anything they came into this series doing well has been taken away ever so slowly and the Bulls have one more day to adjust before Game 6 Thursday in Milwaukee.

While the Bulls certainly don’t run the most free-flowing offensive sets, they have the personnel to solve the Bucks’ defensive puzzle. It’s just taking longer and longer to figure out, as Game 5 presented another hole in the Bulls’ armor, as their inconsistent shooting reappeared after four good games in the series.

For all the talk about the Bulls being at full strength being the ultimate elixir, it hasn't proven to be true, especially considering Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic appear to have been taken out of the series by matchups.

“Aaron I thought played very well yesterday,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He got caught because (Jerryd) Bayless played less. It was more matchup with him. Niko took the hit in that game. He's still working his way back so hopefully a few days here, he'll be ready to roll.”

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And this team doesn’t appear to have much in the way of consistent energy or rhythm, which is why confusion carries the day for this team in this series and possibly beyond.

“Two things you want this time of year. You want your health and to be playing well,” Thibodeau said. “If you have health and you're not playing well that does you no good. if you're playing well and you don't have health that's gonna hurt you also. So you want both.”

They hit four of 22 triples, unable to get in a shooting rhythm from the jump as Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell, players who benefit from ball movement, were unable to hit shots early and couldn’t get them late.

“Some were good. Some they challenged well,” Thibodeau said. “They were flying at us and we’re going to have to adjust. The big thing is moving the ball, not holding on to it. If they’re flying at you, go by.”

The analytics-based theory in today’s game is the 3-point shot is the best one, followed by taking the ball to the basket. The problem is that plays right into the Bucks’ hands if you’re not hitting jumpers from the outside—and the Bulls aren’t taking nearly enough in-between shots, those dreaded midrange attempts that the analytics community decries as the worst shots known to man.

And the Bulls lost trust in the extra pass, so the fourth quarter was a potpourri of driving head on into a Bucks defense that was ready for it. They missed more than their share of shots on the interior, including back-to-back missed layups from Joakim Noah after the Bulls pulled to within three.

“Not only that (lack of trust), layups,” Thibodeau said. “When you’re not making the 3s and you’re not making layups, the ball has to move. It’s going to move better when you’re making shots. When they collapse on the penetration, we have to hit the open man.”

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Since no one was making shots, it left Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler feeling like they were on islands, leading to a fourth quarter where the Bucks amazingly had more blocked shots (eight) than the Bulls had field goals (seven).

“They’re very athletic. They’re quick,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t hold on to it. You just have to make the right read. If it’s a long closeout and they’re flying at you, go by. If they’re closing short, shoot. Just know when to shoot and when to pass. We want penetration. Those are things we want to do.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a menace with three blocked shots and every Bucks player aside from Michael Carter-Williams had a blocked shot in the fourth, not only frustrating the Bulls but confusing them.

“They have good size,” Thibodeau said. “If they’re coming to block, move on penetration, hit the open man. You’re getting by one, that means another one is picking you up. When that guy comes, you have to hit the open man.”

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.