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."
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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.
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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."