Milwaukee Bucks

Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

The Bulls dropped their season series with the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 with a 111-98 road loss on Monday. Observations from a familiar-feeling defeat:

Kris Dunn is unafraid

Bulls’ opponents have recently begun to aggressively sag off Kris Dunn, routinely leaving him with oceans of space to operate with behind the 3-point arc.

But that hasn’t deterred Dunn from continuing to chuck. In January, his 3-point attempts per game is up to 3.2 (he had been hoisting 2.1 per contest in the first two months of the season). Today, he took three in the first quarter alone and finished the night 3-for-5 from deep, bringing his January 3-point percentage up to 34.3% — though that figure is skewed by tonight's performance.

Still, when smart, lengthy teams like Milwaukee employ this strategy to clog driving lanes, it throws a real wrench in a Bulls halfcourt offense already prone to stagnation. Zach LaVine suffered the most from it today. He didn’t score until hitting a 27-footer at the 2:02 mark of the first, missing all three of his prior attempts in heavy traffic in the paint. Dunn checked out on the next possession, and LaVine ended the period with 10 points. But the team’s spacing was off all game.

Turnovers and jump-shots kept the Bulls in it, but not forever

That LaVine spurt spurred the Bulls to a sharp-shooting first half, at least from deep. After starting 3-for-9 from long range, the visitors entered the break at 9-for-22 (40.9%), and also parlayed 15 Bucks turnovers into 19 points.

But their inefficiency inside the arc (9-for-24 in the paint in the first half) served as an omen. In a stretch that recalled these teams’ last meeting in Chicago, the Bucks sprinted out to a 17-4 run in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third, shooting 7-for-10 to the Bulls 2-for-9 (0-for-5 from three). Déjà vu all over again.

The Bulls did claw their way back and trailed only 84-77 entering the fourth, and it was 3-ball that resuscitated them. They shot 4-for-9 from deep in the latter part of the period, and also converted seven of seven attempts from the free throw line. But the Bulls never got closer than nine after the Bucks’ first bucket of the fourth quarter. They finished the game 14-for-48 (29.2%) from three, 20-for-44 (45.4%) from two and 37% from the field. The Bucks outrebounded them 49-39 and outscored them 60-38 in the paint.

"In [the Bucks'] six losses, teams have shot an average of 40 threes and made 17.5. We were on pace to do that in the first half," Jim Boylen said after the game. "Second half we didn't shoot it as well, we ended up making 14. So, that was pretty much our gameplan... I think our gameplan to play against them was solid, we just needed to make a few more of those open shots we had."

The defense was good enough to loosely hang around, forcing 23 turnovers by game’s end. But the Bucks’ paint-packing, hard closeout strategy worked to perfection — the Bulls missed some open looks, but the Bucks also forced a bunch of tough ones.

Fourty-eight 3-point attempts ties the Bulls’ franchise high for a game with the famed 4OT bout with the Hawks last season. Three of the Bulls’ six highest 3-point attempt games have come against the Bucks this season.

A step back for Lauri Markkanen

To be fair, no Bull outside of Thad Young (4-for-8 from three), LaVine (24 points, 8-for-9 from free throw line) and Dunn finished with stat lines that approached being positive. Still, Markkanen’s 8 points on 2-for-11 (0-for-7 from three) shooting was a regression from a solid 17 point outing against the Cavaliers on Saturday.

"He's okay, he's just working his way through it, he's just fighting," Boylen said when asked to assess Markkanen's confidence level. "He missed some shots that we know he can make. That happens."

All eight of Markkanen’s points came in the first half. He logged 15 minutes in the final two quarters, missing all five of his shots. Four of them were 3-point attempts. Markkanen has now gone scoreless in the second half of two of the Bulls' last three games.

"When you're feeling it and actually making shots it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going," Markkanen said. "A lot of our plays I screen-and-pop, so maybe get to the rim. But most of the time, I'm pretty good."

"I think I can do a lot of things, not just shoot threes, but obviously haven't been able to do that lately," he added. "So just gotta figure out the ways that I can actually attack the rim more and get to the free throw line. So, I need to figure out my spots."

The intent that the Bulls had in getting Markkanen involved against Cleveland wasn’t there today, and he can do more to assert himself, as well.

"I know he's gonna work, and he cares, and he's got high character and I believe in him. And our team believes in him," Boylen said.

Another reality check

Not much to lament here. The Bucks aren’t just a better team, they’re the best team in the league — potentially historically so. Antetokounmpo had a ho-hum 28 point, 14 rebound, 10 assist triple-double, despite going 3-for-9 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers. Khris Middleton was 10-for-13 from the field and Kyle Korver poured in an impactful 12 points on 5-for-5.

"They've got a star player. They can beat you from the 3-point line, they can beat you from the free throw line and they can beat you defensively when they don't have a night when their scoring," Boylen said. "That's what championship-caliber teams look like."

The Bulls are now 1-18 against teams above-.500 and 3-8 in the month of January. Back home for Minnesota on Wednesday.

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What to watch for: Bulls face an uphill battle against Milwaukee Bucks

What to watch for: Bulls face an uphill battle against Milwaukee Bucks

On the heels of an epic comeback over the Cavaliers on Saturday, the Bulls visit the Bucks in search of a signature win. The game tips off at 4 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Bucks’ last five games: (5-0)

  • Jan. 18 — W at Nets: 117-97

  • Jan. 16 — W at Celtics: 128-123

  • Jan. 14 — W vs. Knicks: 128-102

  • Jan. 11 — W at Trail Blazers: 122-101

  • Jan. 10 — W at Kings: 127-106

Storyline(s) to watch

There’s a lot working against the Bulls in this one. On top of the Bucks being, far and away, the best team in the NBA so far this season (their current +12.6 point differential is almost two points better than the 2015-16 Warriors), they’re currently in the midst of a six-game win streak and own the league’s second-best home record at 20-2. These teams have met three times already this season, with the Bucks winning all three by an average margin of 14.7 points. The Bulls will be happy the fourth meeting is the last.

It’s another game against a winning team, famously the Bulls’ kryptonite. The comeback over Cleveland was great theater, but the Bucks represent the harshest of reality checks. In those aforementioned three matchups, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 31.3 points, 12 rebounds and four assists while shooting 56.7%. As a team, the Bucks averaged 55 rebounds per games (to the Bulls' 46), blocked 6.3 shots per game and held the Bulls to a cumulative 39.4% shooting from the field in those three games.

On the flip side, pulling out a win, though unlikely, would be that much more of a confidence boost.

Player(s) to watch: The shooters

Antetokounmpo is borderline unstoppable. The ever-looming threat of him getting rolling is the most pressing issue facing the Bulls today, especially without both of their top two centers. 

But the Bucks are truly devastating to match up with because of the shooting they’ve surrounded him with. As a team, Milwaukee attempts the fourth-most 3-pointers per game (38.8) and cans them at a 36% clip. That’s not mind-bending efficiency, but between *deep breath* George Hill (53.3% from deep, three attempts per game), Kyle Korver (42.6%, 3.9 attempts), Khris Middleton (41.5%, 5.2 attempts), Ersan Ilyasova (37%, 2.5 attempts), Wes Matthews (36%, 4.2 attempts), Eric Bledsoe (35.4%, 3.6 attempts) and others, they’re a threat to have at least one or more guys catch fire from deep every night. Even in a down shooting year, Brook Lopez (29.9%, 4.7 attempts) isn’t afraid to chuck, either, especially above the break.

The Bucks have made at least 10 3-pointers in all but three of their 44 games this season. The bright side? The Bulls are responsible for one of those and have outshot the Bucks from behind the arc in two of their three meet-ups — though, of course, none have resulted in wins.

Matchup to watch: Zach LaVine vs. the Bucks defense

LaVine is the engine behind most every competent offensive stretch of basketball for the Bulls this season, but he's struggled versus Milwaukee, averaging just 18.3 points and 32.2% shooting in their previous three meetings. This season, the Bulls own a 99.8 offensive rating with LaVine off the floor (per Cleaning the Glass) and are 3-10 in games in which he scores under 20 points. LaVine's 31 20-point games are leagues more than the rest of his teammates have combined (20), as are his 14 30-point outings (Lauri Markkanen has two of those).

LaVine is on a rare kind of tear of late, but the Bucks are multiple steps up from the quality of opponent he has been eviscerating. With the unique amount of length and athleticism they'll be able to throw at him (as a team, the Bucks own a 101.4 defensive rating, first in the NBA), the Bulls will have to be creative in finding ways to get LaVine going. If they can't, it will likely spell doom.

Trend to watch: A return to small-ball?

Against the Cavaliers, Boylen rode a new-look lineup of Kris Dunn, LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen down the stretch to enormous success. Boylen has stated that he wants everyone on this team to be interchangeable relative a consistent style of play, but the Bulls deviated from their norm and switched a ton of pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter of that game, forcing 10 Cavaliers turnovers while holding them to 14 points and 26.7% shooting.

Yes, that was the Cavs and these are the Bucks. Still, LaVine and Dunn were both highly complimentary of that lineup’s speed and versatility after the game, and it’ll be interesting to see if Boylen goes back to the well with it — or at least starts switching more in pick-and-roll situations as a different look defensively.

Injury report


The Bulls are undermanned in the frontcourt, at present, so evading R. Lopez minutes off the bench is helpful.

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Bulls won't let loss to Bucks define them, despite familiar fault-lines

Bulls won't let loss to Bucks define them, despite familiar fault-lines

Let’s not bury the lede here: Reality struck the United Center Monday night. Antlers first.

The Bulls staved it off for as long as they could. Down 11 to the Bucks after the first quarter, they responded with a red-hot 8-for-13 3-point shooting second and trailed 55-52 at the break. Coby White was humming, Lauri Markkanen was piecing together a second straight solid performance and the arena was alive. Some level of optimism, however cautious, was palpable. 

The Bucks quashed that, at least for a night, with a third-quarter-opening onslaught that saw their lead swell from three to 16 in less than five minutes. They didn’t look back, taking the game 123-102.

“I thought they punched us pretty hard in the third, took control of the game,” Jim Boylen said. “We gave up layups and dunks and open threes. I thought we hung our head a little bit, we haven't done that in a while, we've played through those situations, and I thought tonight we did [hang our heads].”

The signs of the eventual outcome were there: Though the Bulls put up 52 points and shot 10-for-24 (41.7%) from 3-point range in the first half, an 11-for-31 clip from inside the arc loomed ominous. As did attempting zero free throws to the Bucks’ 15, despite persistent ref-lobbying from just about everyone in a red jersey.

“You really want me to comment on that? Well, I'm not gonna,” Boylen said of the free throw disparity. “I appreciate the question, but I'm not gonna. I don't make that kind of money to give it away.”

Another hint at the Bulls’ ultimate fate was tallying only three fastbreak points in the game’s first two quarters. By night’s end, a team that depends on generating turnovers and transition opportunities for offense parlayed 18 Bucks turnovers into nine points.

“Did think we forced turnovers again, didn’t convert like we liked,” Boylen said. 

Give the Bucks credit there. At 30-5, they own the best record in the NBA, as well as the league’s No. 1-rated defense and No. 2-rated offense. This is more than a "quality" opponent. The Bucks' +13.2 average point-differential defies the very fabric of our reality, and their general competency didn’t allow the Bulls any cracks or soft spots to exploit.

“They're long, they're experienced, they're smart, so they understand the game,” Kris Dunn said. “For us, we just have to be a little more aggressive. We play our best basketball when we get stops and get out in transition, and we didn't get to do that tonight. We didn't get the stops that we need, and it's hard to score on a team like that that has a really good half-court defense.”

Dunn also called the Bucks the more physical group and stressed that urgency pervades the Bulls' locker room — both themes that ring familiar. As do these: The Bulls are now 1-12 against teams with at or above .500 records this season; for the 22nd time in 34 games, the Bulls were outrebounded (59-43) by their opponent; and for the 26th time, their opponent attempted more free throws than they did.

Shooting 38.6% on 44 attempts from the 3-point line is great, but not when you go 23-for-63 from inside the arc. In the third quarter that decided the game, the Bucks outscored the Bulls 40-25, shooting 71.4% (62.5% from three) to the hosts' 37% (20% from distance).

“There's gonna be ups and downs but our style of play and our execution has to still be there,” Zach LaVine said before the team’s matchup against the Hawks on Saturday. “We can’t just rely on making shots."

Again, credit the Bucks' transcendence on both ends of the floor (especially their paint-packing defensive strategy), but tonight remains a step in the wrong direction as far as that point of emphasis is concerned. The Bucks hit them hard and the Bulls ran out of counters.

“Everybody's pissed off. You should be,” Dunn said. “We've been playing well and I feel like Milwaukee gave us a little humble pie. We gotta be able to take that and go back to the drawing board and get back to work.”

All of this isn't as much a referendum as it is a reminder. After a month of either beating up on bad teams or competing with good ones — and building a reputation of a top-tier defense — it's a loss that, in many ways, defies the values these Bulls had been establishing. But that doesn't mean it has to define them. 

"It's definitely tough," Dunn said. "Tonight we weren't us."

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