Playoff lessons are excruciating, painful and often illuminating, schooling that takes no prisoner and no one is held captive.
Many times, you’re in school without the slightest idea you’re the next student, which can be the beauty and curse of it all. Historically, the Bulls’ Game 3 double-overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks will likely be Exhibit A for their playoff education for the young Bucks, a group of 20-somethings with nothing to lose—except they lost a game they could have easily won.
But this was the rare occasion where a game doled out disparate lessons to both combatants, as the Bulls are still learning about each other, pushing their collective selves to limits with unknown endings.
“We’re playing against a hungry team, they’re pushing us,” Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. “Tonight was a great example with how hard they play. They’re forcing us to play, which we needed that. Finding ways to win games, that’s why you gotta love the playoffs because every game is gonna be different.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd has been on both sides of this, as both the steady hand guiding a team through the storm and also the wide-eyed youthful player who had to sip from every cup the playoffs had to offer.
He wasn’t exhausted after the game; Instead, while he was obviously disappointed in the outcome, he looked like a man who wouldn’t get caught in the moment, knowing “my pups” are dealing with such an experience for the first time.
“I think they all did. It’s just understanding the time and the moment,” said Kidd when asked if his players tried to do too much individually. “This group has to go through it. I thought they handled themselves well being down, executing. Sending the game to overtime, they gave us a chance to win. This was a good game for us to learn.”
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Most times, games like these are a demerit against a veteran club because it indicates a lack of seriousness, taking an opponent lightly in their environment, as the Bulls fell behind early by 18 to an emotional Bucks team ready to charge its way back into the series.
Blown defensive assignments were plentiful, as even Rose was about to run a play midway through the second quarter when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was barking for a timeout after the Bucks’ onslaught put the Bulls in “critical condition.”
“We were fortunate to dig our way out of the hole,” Thibodeau said. “We were back on our heels a little bit, then I thought our reaction to the ball (was slow), we didn’t finish our defense.”
The Bucks were relentless, exploiting every opening the Bulls gave them. When Joakim Noah lost his man on defense, Jared Dudley slipped behind him for a layup. When Pau Gasol didn’t box out John Henson, the young big man took the elevator up three floors—and over three Bulls—for a left-handed putback dunk that sent the Bucks section of the BMO Harris Bradley Center into a lathered frenzy.
It was alarming for the Bulls.
That, and their inability to close with an eight-point lead with a little over 90 seconds remaining will give Thibodeau the kind of nightmares between now and the end of spring, as he’ll somehow believe more preparation is necessary for such an exercise.
“To build the lead I thought was really good, correcting the rebounding,” Thibodeau said. “And then losing that lead down the stretch was disappointing.”
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The missed free throw from Derrick Rose, the one he lamented with a seven-letter word not fit for publication, that missed assignment that resulted in the second of back-to-back 3-pointers from Bucks marksman Khris Middleton, it was ugly.
But it was necessary, the kind of medicine you don’t like taking, but the ‘tussin made you better.
“I was ready. You learn from your mistakes,” Rose said. “We were up. When Middleton hit the first three, I switched onto him. I knew what play they were running, I just didn’t act on it. It led to overtime so just learn from my mistakes. I’m happy to be here and happy that my teammates believe in me.”
They followed him, and Jimmy Butler provided more fire in the second overtime, playing free safety for a steal and dunk that finally signaled the Bulls had learned their lesson on this night—that their wake-up call merely came 30 minutes after the game began, that they’re developing competitive character through experience they don’t have as a group.
“It shows the kind of team we are,” Rose said. “Offensively, we can get things clicking very quickly. We definitely didn’t want to be in that type of situation early in the game, giving them momentum. We were only down four at halftime. Just talking to each other in the locker room, to tighten up, make them work a little bit harder.”
For the Bucks, it’s important for next year.
For the Bulls, it’s important for the next two weeks.
Because they can’t afford these lapses against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And Thursday was another step in the “Getting to know you” phase of their relationship with each other—with Judgment Day approaching faster than they want it do.
It makes the ‘tussin go down smoother.