Perhaps the flukish way the Bulls lost Game 4 wasn’t enough to motivate them to approaching Game 5 with the appropriate focus and downright fear the playoffs require.
Pau Gasol has said, very softly and quietly the past few days, that the Bucks’ aggressiveness put the Bulls on their heels very early in games, and it prevents the Bulls from being assertive.
The Bucks weren’t intimidated by the atmosphere or what was at stake if they lost, perhaps sensing the Bulls were waiting or a bit unsure of themselves. It was the Bulls’ worst nightmare, falling behind 9-0 and never regaining control.
“They have been more effective, more successful starting off games,” Gasol said. “They got off to a 9-0 lead early and we didn’t want that to happen. We spoke about it. We tried to do it differently. But they made shots, we didn’t.”
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Gasol wasn’t just speaking out of turn because he finally had a game worthy of sitting on the podium; it’s been a common refrain through the series, as the Bucks’ length, energy and quickness leaves the Bulls being passive, waiting to see what they’ll try next before issuing a response.
“We didn’t play enough with that sense of urgency and desire that you need to do to close out a team when you have them in that position,” Gasol said. “We have to do better. Not think about losing then having Game 7 at home. It would be a terrible mistake.”
They’ve let the Bucks do more than hang around; they feel like they’re the better team, which we all know isn’t true. But they’re clearly taking the initiative and earning the Bulls’ respect with every blocked shot and contested dribble.
One can almost say they’ve taken a piece of the Bulls’ DNA and made it their own. They defend like madmen, hit the glass and play opportunistic basketball for 48 minutes.
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“They’re a talented team and they do a lot of things right, defense is one of them,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said of the Bulls. “You look at their length, they know how to use it. They understand big game situations. For us, we’re going through the process of learning. You look at our length, we’re learning how to use that. We’re learning how to play the right way. There’s no better team to learn that from, to go against. They play hard for 48 minutes.”
Make no mistake, it isn’t cause for panic but certainly the Bucks should have their attention. The Bulls are still up 3-2, although if Khris Middleton’s wing jumper hits net at the end of regulation in Game 3 that number could be reversed.
“They’re doing what they’re doing,” said forward Mike Dunleavy, the only starter who went scoreless on either side in Game 5. “I wouldn’t say they’ve changed much. Everybody makes adjustments from game to game but if we continue to move the ball, we’ll get good shots. If we don’t get into our offense quick enough, it’ll be a struggle."
These past two games could merely be a series of unrelated events that caused this bump in the road—a bump that seems like a mountain compared to the mammoth series that seems ahead against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In Game 4, they turned the ball over so much, it was the third-highest mark in the past 25 years. Anomaly, right?
In Game 5, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose combined to shoot 10 for 41, a staggering statistic considering in a given night, usually one of them plays well enough to lift the tides of the rest of the roster.
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But nobody else was hitting shots either, thus creating a lack of confidence in ball movement, giving way to a painful fourth quarter where they tried plugging a round peg into a square hole—exactly what the Bucks want, slowing the game to a crawl and daring the Bulls to win by tough shots against a tough, aggressive defense.
“Yeah, there’s playing against some of our weaknesses,” Dunleavy said. “They’re taking advantage of things we don’t do too well.”
Add to that, Michael Carter-Williams broke out of his slump to get the better of Rose on the offensive end. Another rare occurrence, right? Perhaps, except one more rare occurrence will lead to a seventh game where a madhouse will turn into a mausoleum, potentially.
“I sure hope not,” said Dunleavy when asked if his team has lost confidence. “We have a lot of respect for them. They could’ve won Game 3. We’re fully aware of how good a team they are.”
Now they’re being tested after being pushed, unexpectedly. And they’ve created a monster, fully capable of pressing them further.
“It’s a chance for this team to grow, individually and collectively, and see what we’re made of,” Gasol said.
Indeed. See you Thursday.