If the Bulls expected to win their playoff opener by way of mere presence against the green Milwaukee Bucks, they were dead wrong.
Good thing they shot well enough to overcome what appeared to be their own opening night jitters, methodically pulling away from the young team in the second half to take a 1-0 lead with a 103-91 win at the United Center Saturday night.
The shots made came from the guards, as playoff games are usually won by the creators, and Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Aaron Brooks did the heavy lifting.
Butler scored 25 with six assists in 35 minutes while Rose, who left to a standing ovation with 23 points and seven assists in 27 efficient, electric and exciting minutes—and unlike his last playoff game, he walked off under his own power as opposed to being helped off by the training staff, the biggest win of all.
“He and Jimmy got off to a great start,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It was good to have Derrick out there. It’s been a long process for him and obviously he makes our team a lot different.”
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Rose hit Mike Dunleavy and Butler for pull-away baskets after the fourth started off with a bit of a lull, opening a door for the Bucks to possibly steal Game 1. But with his playmaking and savvy, he shut it down after doing what he does best right after halftime.
He scored 11 in the third quarter, including 3-straight three-pointers, to give the Bulls some breathing room after the Bucks kept it close for the first 30 minutes or so.
“Attack and see what they’re giving me,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of space out there and I’m just running around freely.”
And he’ll need Butler to alleviate some of the attention on the perimeter, as he keeps noting he doesn’t see double teams as much—a direct correlation to Butler being a threat—but with the Bucks having so many young, athletic wings, Butler had to score in different ways.
“Get out on transition to where they can’t use their length to block shots,” Butler said. “They don’t know what (we)’re going to do, and (we’re) just running. When we’re moving like that, everyone is going to get open shots.”
The Bucks trailed by three in the first few minutes of the third, in nearly prime position to steal one on the road before it was snatched away.
“We were in a good seat. We had some great opportunities to start the fourth, too,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. “There were some stretches where we thought we could get the lead down to steal one.”
The Bucks didn’t buckle or run away and hide under the specter of the postseason, playing loose and free, making up for their mistakes with exuberance and excitement, forcing 10 first half turnovers to keep themselves within striking distance.
Michael Carter-Williams went head up with Rose for parts of the night, and Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ sweet-shooting two-guard, scored 18 in 35 minutes. But the Bucks couldn’t continue hitting shots after the first half, going just 15 for 43 (35 percent), unable to keep up with the surging Bulls.
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Kidd, a young coach but wise in the way of reading the game’s rhythms, knew the Bucks’ energy and execution wasn’t going to last long, repeatedly calling the Bucks’ 51 first-half points, kick-started by a first quarter where his team shot 13 for 22 from the field, “fool’s gold”.
“We’re not an offensive team,” Kidd said. “That set the tone in a bad way for us, giving up 60 points. We rely on our defense and we fell in a trap of scoring in the first quarter. We thought we could outscore Chicago with our offense and not play defense.”
Thibodeau’s Rubik’s cube was in full effect, as two of his prime performers who weren’t at his disposal last playoff but had become a downright necessity for the season to date didn’t have banner nights, in
Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Gasol struggled to find his rhythm in the set offense and shot just five for 17 on the evening but still grabbed 13 rebounds to go with his 10 points and added four assists.
As for Mirotic, Thibodeau didn’t go to the rookie much, probably because Taj Gibson was better suited for matching up against the Bucks’ bigs, having his moments before exiting late in the second half with a right knee strain.
Brooks helped keep the Bulls afloat with 10 points in his first eight minutes after Rose had a slow start, and his leaning, bank-stealing 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter gave the Bulls a 30-29 lead.
Thibodeau will find plenty of correctable errors in the film, play and box score, like the Bulls’ 19 turnovers that gave the Bucks 25 points. But getting one up on the left side of the ledger was all that mattered.