Bulls

Confident Bucks improving with wins, not just experience

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Confident Bucks improving with wins, not just experience

When the Eastern Conference playoff matchups were finalized two weeks ago, a quick glance at the bracket showed an appetizing potential second round matchup between LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers and the Bulls looming. A pair of contenders and bitter rivals that had met in the postseason three times in the last five seasons appeared to be on a collision course for a fourth meeting.

But the Milwaukee Bucks are getting stronger. And they're committed to putting those talks on hold.

They took another step Monday night, clamping down defensively yet again and receiving contributions from a number of players in a 94-88 Game 5 victory over the Bulls, their second straight win facing elimination in their best-of-seven series.

"Everyone’s talking about the future, everyone’s talking about (the Bulls') series with Cleveland," Jared Dudley said. "We’re still here."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Jason Kidd has made it a point during the series to reiterate the point that his youthful Bucks, whose top four leading scorers in the regular season all are 23 or younger, were playing to win, but also were looking to gain valuable experience and improvement to build for the future.

And in five games they've done just that; their defense against a Bulls team ranked 10th in offensive efficiency has been nothing short of spectacular, budding star Khris Middleton has averaged 17.8 points per game, 20-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo has gone toe-to-toe with All-Star Jimmy Butler and Michael Carter-Williams is coming along nicely after a slow start, scoring 22 points in Monday's Game 5 win.

But more important than the progression and investments for the future, the Bucks are winning. Their inexperienced core got their playoff debuts out of the way in Chicago - both Bulls victories - before returning to Milwaukee, playing in front of a raucous home crowd where they took the Bulls to double overtime in Game 3 and first tasted success in a Game 4 in which they played to their strengths flawlessly.

That victory gave them new life, which they parlayed into Monday's game. The Bucks forced 13 more Bulls turnovers which translated to 19 points, held Chicago to 35 percent shooting (including 10-for-41 shooting from Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler) and found better looks at the basket, scoring 46 points in the paint.

They heeded Jason Kidd's words of starting quickly, scoring the game's first nine points and then withstanding the Bulls' 21-4 run afterwards, taking a three-point lead into halftime. When Carter-Williams, who had spearheaded the offensive attack in the first half, headed to the locker room with what looked to be a nasty sprained right ankle in the third quarter, they clamped down defensively, holding the Bulls to 29 percent shooting in the quarter. And when the Bulls made their inevitable run in the fourth quarter, cutting a nine-point deficit to three, Milwaukee withstood and scored six of the next seven points to push the game out of reach.

[RELATED: Mayo relishing chance to play Bucks enforcer]

It's that sense of urgency that has the Bucks playing with utter confidence. Power forward John Henson, who scored eight points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, likened Milwaukee's situation to that of the NCAA Tournament, a humorous analogy considering many of their core contributors are just a few years removed from college themselves.

"It was good to be out there playing for your life, playing for your season. We don’t have anything to do this summer, so we’re trying to stay here as long as we can," he said. "It’s getting to the point where anything can happen."

Two games in which the pace has played in Milwaukee's favor, combined with that newfound sense of urgency and confidence has quickly made this series feel like more of a toss-up. The Bulls still hold the upper hand, leading 3-2 with a potential Game 7 at home, but Milwaukee is jumping on the opportunity to improve. In the first three games of the series it appeared that improvement would come in the form of experience, but as the wins pile up their attitude has changed. So for now the Cavaliers will have to wait.

"We just go out there and play our type of basketball. We've gotten better," Kidd said. "These guys have a lot to lose. We have an opportunity to get better each time we go to work."

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

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USA TODAY

Denzel Valentine suffers setback on injured left ankle, will be reevaluated in 2 weeks

Denzel Valentine’s troublesome left ankle is going to keep him on the sideline for at least the next two weeks. Fred Hoiberg said Saturday before the Bulls’ home opener against the Detroit Pistons that Valentine is suffering from a bone bruise in the ankle he sprained on the second day of training camp. Valentine will be evaluated in two weeks.

“It sucks because of all the work I put in this summer and being around the guys you want to be out there so bad,” he said. “Things happen for a reason, and now that we know what’s going on I at least have a time frame and be patient with it; it’s bad news but good news at the same time as it gives me time to get ready.”

Valentine had been practicing earlier in the week and appeared close to a return after spraining the ankle on Sept. 25. But the third year wing complained of discomfort in the ankle and missed practice on Friday. A scan of the left ankle revealed the bone bruise, and Hoiberg wouldn’t speculate on when exactly Valentine might return.

It’s the same ankle Valentine had surgery on in May 2017. Valentine also missed the last two weeks of last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Valentine or the Bulls, who are in desparate need of help both in the backcourt and on the wing.

Though Valentine isn’t a true point guard, he averaged 3.2 assists per game off the bench last season. The Bulls could use that kind of production when Kris Dunn returns on Monday, as Cameron Payne and Ryan Arcidiacono haven’t exactly showed promise in the early going.

Instead, Valentine is on the mend and it’s unclear when he might return. Given he’s had surgery on the same ankle before, the Bulls will be cautious upon his return.

“I’m a fighter, I’m not going to quit; just deal with the hand dealt," Valentine said. "I can’t sit here and be negative, I just got to fight, stay mentally strong and this will be bittersweet when I come back and have a great year.”