Bulls storm into matchup with Cavaliers with laugher in Milwaukee


Bulls storm into matchup with Cavaliers with laugher in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE — Onto Cleveland.

The series the NBA world has been curious to see is now upon us, after the Chicago Bulls finally decided to get desperate and do away with the Milwaukee Bucks with a runaway 120-66 Game 6 shellacking at the Bradley Center, the largest playoff win in franchise history.

Whether it was by four or 40, the Bulls needed to put the pesky Bucks away on the road as opposed to sitting on their hands and waiting for a seventh game in Chicago — and by the 48-minute display, one is left to wonder how this series was taken to a sixth game as opposed to it being ended a few nights prior.

Just like it was evident from the dawn of Game 5 the Bulls weren’t ready for what the Milwaukee Bucks were bringing, the reverse was definitely the case Thursday as the Bulls stopped playing tight and tightened up on the Bucks, jumping out to an 8-0 lead before methodically and systematically breaking the Bucks down piece by piece en route to a 34-point halftime lead that actually extended to 88-44 late in the third quarter.

After the offensive disaster that took place in Game 5, where the Bulls couldn’t hit much of anything, they needed a sterling offensive performance, a confidence booster of sorts.

Shooting 51 percent and 50 from three with 15 triples while holding the Bucks to 32 percent is the type of game film Tom Thibodeau won’t mind showing in preparing for the second round.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“It looks a lot better when the ball goes in the rim,” Thibodeau said. “A lot of times you don't have control over when the ball goes on or doesn't go in. If they're the right shots, you want them to shoot them.”

And when Mike Dunleavy comes out scoring 19 in the first half, you know it’s more than just a good night for him; it’s a night birthed from supreme ball movement, the recipient of open 3-point looks as the Bulls looked anything like the panicked outfit that took the floor three nights ago.

With the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers set to begin Monday, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler needed to play well, together. Rose missed his first five shots but it wasn’t an indication of how well he ran the Bulls offense, as he assisted on the first three Bulls field goals and five of the first seven, most to Dunleavy.

“Mike is playing great, knocking down shots. Mike is playing great,” Rose said. “Being a veteran, coming back to the bench. Talking. Just being Mike. And that's what we need, somebody that's a little bit older and experienced talking to young guys like Tony. And to the guys that's coming in, making sure they're ready and prepared.”

By the time he hit his first field goal, a runner which started a streak of seven straight points in the second quarter, the Bulls were already off and running, leading by 20 two minutes into the period.

In 24 minutes of effective work, Rose finished with 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds on six of 14 shooting. Butler, the man who opened his mouth about setting the tone and believing his teammates would follow with his defense, registered four steals and five rebounds to go along with his 16 points in 31 minutes.

[WATCH: Antetokounmpo tackles Dunleavy, gets tossed from Game 6]

That defensive mentality permeated to his teammates, as the Bulls prevented the Bucks from hitting the offensive glass, and forced nine turnovers to match their nine field goals by the time the score rose to 47-20 in the second.

All series long, the Bucks played with poise and composure, but as the game and series began to slip away, youth was served in a not-so good way. As Dunleavy spotted up for a transition triple, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo charged into him leading with his forearm and nailed him, perhaps payback for Dunleavy apparently hitting him in the face on a previous possession.

Dunleavy could be in danger for league review once they look at his shot to the neck of Michael Carter-Williams early in the first, which caused him to go to the locker room before he returned to exact some revenge with a low blow.

“I don't wanna comment on it. It's a physical game, there's a lot going on,” Thibodeau said.

Antetokounmpo was ejected for his foul while Carter-Williams was given a flagrant one foul for his action.

All series long the Bulls reacted to the Bucks’ aggressiveness, and it took six games to fight back—six games of learning they can’t afford against the Cavaliers.

Onto Cleveland.

What to watch for: Bulls face an uphill battle against Milwaukee Bucks

USA Today

What to watch for: Bulls face an uphill battle against Milwaukee Bucks

On the heels of an epic comeback over the Cavaliers on Saturday, the Bulls visit the Bucks in search of a signature win. The game tips off at 4 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Bucks’ last five games: (5-0)

  • Jan. 18 — W at Nets: 117-97

  • Jan. 16 — W at Celtics: 128-123

  • Jan. 14 — W vs. Knicks: 128-102

  • Jan. 11 — W at Trail Blazers: 122-101

  • Jan. 10 — W at Kings: 127-106

Storyline(s) to watch

There’s a lot working against the Bulls in this one. On top of the Bucks being, far and away, the best team in the NBA so far this season (their current +12.6 point differential is almost two points better than the 2015-16 Warriors), they’re currently in the midst of a six-game win streak and own the league’s second-best home record at 20-2. These teams have met three times already this season, with the Bucks winning all three by an average margin of 14.7 points. The Bulls will be happy the fourth meeting is the last.

It’s another game against a winning team, famously the Bulls’ kryptonite. The comeback over Cleveland was great theater, but the Bucks represent the harshest of reality checks. In those aforementioned three matchups, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 31.3 points, 12 rebounds and four assists while shooting 56.7%. As a team, the Bucks averaged 55 rebounds per games (to the Bulls' 46), blocked 6.3 shots per game and held the Bulls to a cumulative 39.4% shooting from the field in those three games.

On the flip side, pulling out a win, though unlikely, would be that much more of a confidence boost.

Player(s) to watch: The shooters

Antetokounmpo is unstoppable. The ever-looming threat of him getting rolling is the most pressing issue facing the Bulls today, especially without both of their top two centers. 

But the Bucks are truly devastating to match up with because of the shooting they’ve surrounded him with. As a team, Milwaukee attempts the fourth-most 3-pointers per game (38.8) and cans them at a 36% clip. That’s not mind-bending efficiency, but between *deep breath* George Hill (53.3% from deep, three attempts per game), Kyle Korver (42.6%, 3.9 attempts), Khris Middleton (41.5%, 5.2 attempts), Ersan Ilyasova (37%, 2.5 attempts), Wes Matthews (36%, 4.2 attempts), Eric Bledsoe (35.4%, 3.6 attempts) and others, they’re a threat to have at least one or more guys catch fire from deep every night. Even in a down shooting year, Brook Lopez (29.9%, 4.7 attempts) isn’t afraid to chuck, either, especially above the break.

The Bucks have made at least 10 3-pointers in all but three of their 44 games this season. The bright side? The Bulls are responsible for one of those and have outshot the Bucks from behind the arc in two of their three meet-ups — though, of course, none have resulted in wins.

Matchup to watch: Zach LaVine vs. the Bucks defense

LaVine is the engine behind most every competent offensive stretch of basketball for the Bulls this season, but he's struggled versus Milwaukee, averaging just 18.3 points and 32.2% shooting in their previous three meetings. This season, the Bulls own a 99.8 offensive rating with LaVine off the floor (per Cleaning the Glass) and are 3-10 in games in which he scores under 20 points. LaVine's 31 20-point games are leagues more than the rest of his teammates have combined (20), as are his 14 30-point outings (Lauri Markkanen has two of those).

LaVine is on a rare kind of tear of late, but the Bucks are multiple steps up from the quality of opponent he has been eviscerating. With the unique amount of length and athleticism they'll be able to throw at him (as a team, the Bucks own a 101.4 defensive rating, first in the NBA), the Bulls will have to be creative in finding ways to get LaVine going. If they can't, it will likely spell doom.

Trend to watch: A return to small-ball?

Against the Cavaliers, Boylen rode a new-look lineup of Kris Dunn, LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen down the stretch to enormous success. Boylen has stated that he wants everyone on this team to be interchangeable relative a consistent style of play, but the Bulls deviated from their norm and switched a ton of pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter of that game, forcing 10 Cavaliers turnovers while holding them to 14 points and 26.7% shooting.

Yes, that was the Cavs and these are the Bucks. Still, LaVine and Dunn were both highly complimentary of that lineup’s speed and versatility after the game, and it’ll be interesting to see if Boylen goes back to the well with it — or at least starts switching more in pick-and-roll situations as a different look defensively.

Injury report

The Bulls are undermanned in the frontcourt, at present, so evading R. Lopez minutes off the bench is helpful.

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NBA Power Rankings: All-Star starter announcement could impact LaVine's chances to make east squad

USA Today

NBA Power Rankings: All-Star starter announcement could impact LaVine's chances to make east squad

The NBA will announce the starters for next month’s All-Star game at the United Center before the nationally televised TNT doubleheader on Tuesday.

The choices are pretty obvious in the West with Luka Doncic and James Harden well ahead of the field in the backcourt and the frontline set with Kawhi Leonard joining Laker teammates Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

The East frontcourt also should be easy to choose with Joel Embiid at center, flanked by forwards Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pascal Siakam. You could make the argument for former Bull Jimmy Butler being named over Siakam since the Toronto forward missed 11 games because of injury, but Siakam was the driving force behind Toronto’s fast start after losing Leonard as a free agent last summer.

Embiid has missed 13 games because of knee maintenance and a dislocated finger, but he’s the most dominant center in the East, and should get a starting spot if healthy.

Now to the East backcourt, where there really aren’t any clear cut choices to start. I would give a spot to Atlanta’s Trae Young, despite the fact the Hawks are having a terrible season with the worst record in the East. His numbers are just too impressive to ignore. Young is fourth in the league in scoring at 28.8 and also fourth in assists at 8.5.

Boston’s Kemba Walker would be my other starter. HIs arrival has allowed young perimeter players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to thrive, but Walker is also the player with the ball in his hands at the end of close games. He brings so many of the intangible qualities that Kyrie Irving lacked in Boston.

Speaking of Irving, it’s unlikely he’ll get a spot after missing most of the first half of the season because of a shoulder injury. Eastern conference coaches will name two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card selections as reserves, which means Zach LaVine’s fate is in their hands.

If the coaches decide to reward players from winning teams, look for Ben Simmons and Kyle Lowry to get the two reserve guard spots, leaving Bradley Beal, LaVine, Spencer Dinwiddie, Derrick Rose and Malcolm Brogdon in the running for a possible wild card selection.

Will LaVine make it? The odds are against him right now, but he’s doing everything in his power to impact the coaches’ vote with a spectacular month of January. I’ll have my All-Star reserve picks next week.

Now on to the power rankings.