O.J. Mayo relishing opportunity to play Bucks' enforcer


O.J. Mayo relishing opportunity to play Bucks' enforcer

O.J. Mayo heard the chants loud and clear. But don't expect him to change his attitude.

The de-facto enforcer for the youthful Bucks has found himself engaged in a war of words with Jimmy Butler during their first round playoff series with the Bulls, and the back-and-forth added another chapter Monday night in Milwaukee's Game 5 victory.

Twice Mayo and Butler found themselves face-to-face, jawing back and forth during dead-ball situations before being sent back to their metaphorical corners by their teammates. On the second occasion the heated conversations resulted in double technicals on the respective shooting guards, with the United Center faithful responding with chants of, "O-J-sucks!"

But for the defensive-minded Bucks, who have suddenly found themselves back in the playoff series - down 3-2 heading back to Milwaukee with momentum for Game 6 on Thursday - it's exactly what Mayo wants. Looking for any kind of spark against the favorites, the Bucks have bodied up the superior Bulls and found an edge, gaining camaraderie and confidence in the process.

"At the end of the day, when you have 22,000 people chanting, ‘You suck,’ I know my guys got my back," Mayo said. "So if I happen to suck tonight my guys hopefully are going to step up and play well."

Mayo didn't shoot well, going 2-for-8 in the win, but he did add 10 points and four assists in 26 minutes while playing stifling defense on Butler, who needed 21 shots to score 20 points. But more important than any numbers he's produced in the box score, Mayo has grasped the reins and relished his role as the muscle on a Bucks team full of young contributors making their playoff debuts.

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True, Mayo is just 27 years old and has 25 playoff games to his resume, but on a team whose three leading scorers are 23 and younger he's the seasoned veteran who can get away with scuffling and not only maintain his level of play, but motivate the players around him. The same can be said for veteran Zaza Pachulia, who has drawn the ire of the Bulls for his actions in Game 2, when he drew two technical fouls and was ejected for his tiff with Nikola Mirotic.

The Bucks have no intention of getting in a shootout with a Bulls team that averaged nearly 101 points per game in the regular season; the Bucks ranked second-to-last in offensive efficiency and are 10-30 this season when opponents score 100 or more points. That means dirtying up the game, slowing things down and, if need be, going face-to-face with the Bulls stars. Reserve forward Jared Dudley, an eight-year veteran, admitted as much, specifically mentioning Butler's demeanor on the court as needing retribution of some kind.

"That’s the way we have to play. We’re not as talented. We have to muck the game up, be physical at times," he said. "Jimmy Butler’s celebrating after every time, but it’s fine. It’s part of the game, so O.J. will step into that, start celebrating and getting into him, letting him know that he’s going to be here for the whole game."

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Whether or not Mayo actually has gotten in Butler's head - Butler has broken out in the series, averaging 26.6 points per game - it's a tactic Mayo plans on continuing, picking and choosing his spots to get in tussles and when to buckle down; he did that in Game 5, limiting Butler to 1-for-7 shooting in the final quarter.

"Playoffs are pretty much always physical. At the end of the day it’s a win or go home type of situation, so it’s going to put you on the edge as far as intensity-wise," Mayo said. "Just got to try to do the best job of staying poised at the right time and focused on what’s right for the team."

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season


New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

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


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.”