And just like that, the NBA regular season is over. The seedings are set, and for Milwaukee Bucks, this means a date with the surging Chicago Bulls for the first round of the playoffs.
The Bucks swept the season series 4-0 against Chicago this year. Though none of them featured both teams fully healthy, a number of them were also competitive for a good number of stretches.
For all intents and purposes, the Chicago Bulls absolutely overachieved this season. After what seemed like years of rebuilding, the team struck gold with their pairing of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan and a few excellent moves that landed Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, and Alex Caruso.
While the Bulls were the feel-good Cinderella story of the year at one point in the season, they’ve quickly come back down to Earth as one of the more vulnerable high-caliber teams to top-tier playoff competition. And now they have to try to win four games against the defending champions in a matchup that has much history behind it.
It’s a tall task, but along with being division rivals, the Bulls certainly have an axe to grind with the Bucks after a hard foul by Grayson Allen caused Alex Caruso to be sidelined for a few weeks, further adding to the sudden precarity they faced mid-season. Compounding their predicament is the fact that while the Bucks are finally fully healthy for the first time this season, Bulls are still missing an excellent floor-spacer, playmaker and perimeter shooter in Lonzo Ball.
Here’s a quick preview of what that matchup — and Milwaukee’s road to a two-peat — might look like in the coming weeks.
Quick statistics: Key numbers you need to know
- 2nd in rebounds per game (46.7)
- 3rd in points per game (115.5)
- 3rd in pace (100.59 possessions)
- 3rd in offensive rating (114.3 points per 100 possessions)
- 4th in three-point makes per game (14.1)
- 4th in three-point percentage (36.9 percent)
- 8th in true shooting (57.9 percent)
- 10th in effective field goal percentage (54.1 percent)
Can the Bucks’ defense cut down on Chicago’s shot-creation?
You can say what you want about the elite shooting and athleticism that Zach Lavine brings to a basketball club, but the fact of the matter this season is that this is DeMar DeRozan’s team now. He takes and makes the lion’s share of the team’s shots, has the highest usage rate on the roster, and his mid-range mastery is a huge part of their unexpected success this season. It’s why his name was routinely brought up in MVP conversations up until his team fell off mid-season after a slew of injuries.
When it comes to the guard matchups, the Bucks are in a good place. In their regular-season matchups, the game plan with DeMar DeRozan was relatively simple: close out hard on the mid-range, bother him relentlessly on the ball, and dare him to take three-pointers. It was a game plan that made sense given Milwaukee’s litany of stout perimeter defenders and DeRozan’s significant lack of consistency from range.
Defense wins championships and the lengthy Bucks will have the opportunity to prove it once more in their first playoff series of the year. They’ve been rather middling on that end of the floor this season, but never against their division rivals. In the 4-0 season series sweep of the Bulls, the Bucks held their division rivals to 102.0 points per 100 possessions, a stellar defensive rating that would be good for first in the league. Their 116.0 offensive rating in those contests would also place them second in the league in that category. They were also a net plus-14.0 in those four games.
Milwaukee has shown it can make life hard for the Bulls star and MVP candidate. Though DeRozan actually scored over three points more against the Bucks compared to his season averages, he had to take four more field goal attempts (and consequently, three less percentage points in efficiency) to do so. His three-point shooting also took a nosedive of the worst kind: he normed a decently respectable 35.2 percent from behind the arc for the season, but this shot down to 23.1 percent in his four losses against Milwaukee.
Their championship defense has taken a pronounced dip this year, but the Bucks have shown their defense has another gear to lean on when playoff time comes around. Beyond their regular-season performances, it’s clear they have the personnel to keep in step with Chicago. The Bulls can force switches off Jrue Holiday, Jevon Carter and Wesley Matthews only to find Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez waiting in the paint.
|Nikola Vucevic||Brook Lopez||7/22 (31.8%)|
|DeMar DeRozan||Jrue Holiday||11/27 (40.7%)|
|Zach LaVine||Wesley Matthews||1/6 (16.7%)|
Fortunately for Chicago, mid-range shot-making is a lost art that, when consistent, can keep any team in a close game. According to their shot dashboard on NBA.com/stats, they clear Milwaukee in two-point pull-ups, both in terms of frequency and efficiency. This only means that it only takes a scorching night from DeMar DeRozan and an off night for the Bucks’ perimeter defenders for the Bulls to steal one game. Forcing the Bucks to respect his shooting from deep would also do wonders as far as contorting the opposing defense goes.
There’s definitely a conversation to be had about the lost production that comes with losing a defender and shooter like Lonzo Ball in a matchup against the defending champs. But you play who you play, and that is neither here nor there with the playoff matchups all but set.
Can Milwaukee score against Chicago’s versatility?
While Milwaukee should have the superior defensive units on paper, it’s tough to discount the robust lineups Chicago can throw at them with blue-collar defenders like Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams, and Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.
Any matchup against Milwaukee will have to reckon with the question of who to put on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Unfortunately, given their personnel (or lack thereof), the answer isn’t so clear-cut with Chicago. Bulls head coach Billy Donovan has said that a Tristan Thompson-Nikola Vucevic frontcourt is on the table to counter Milwaukee’s size. (Hint: this is nowhere close to being the correct answer.)
While this does help the case for Chicago’s interior defense, it also makes them that much easier to defend for Milwaukee. If it wasn’t already, the lack of spacing is practically a free pass to zone up and focus on cutting off middle penetration care of the Bulls’ more potent scorers.
The answer, then, is the same as it’s always been: it takes a village. Chicago can certainly play defense-by-committee on Giannis, but at the same time, this only just means that the points will have to come from elsewhere. Jrue Holiday has been having a resurgent year on offense just as Khris Middleton’s efficiency saw a bit of a plunge. Chicago’s guards have nowhere near the strength to match Holiday in the guard position, while Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez should have easy pickings in the paint all game long.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will still get his at the end of the day; he’s too dominant not to. But this means he’ll have to take more inefficient shots to get his buckets, and he’ll likely be placed on the free-throw line more times than he’d like. During the season series, he turned the ball over a good amount while also leaning on mid-range turnarounds that are always a win for the defense regardless of his improvement in that area. But he also put in just-okay splits of 56/22/60 against a Bulls defense that had to depend on bigs like Vucevic as its anchor in the paint. (It’s really no surprise that the Bulls rank 22nd in the league in opponent points in the paint with 49.6 per game.)
Given the clash of offensive talents that’s expected between these two teams, a few games should come down to late-game execution, mentality, and composure. And while the Bulls are 0-16 against the top three teams from each conference, the Bucks seem to be peaking at the right time with close wins against the Bulls, Celtics, Nets, and Sixers that were all won in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter.
Bucks fans can expect their team to make quick work of their division rivals, but the defending champs themselves can’t expect an overachieving team that just made the playoffs for the first time since 2017 to just roll over without a fight. Bucks in 5.