The last time the Bulls played the Bucks at the United Center, they looked to be on the verge of a blowout victory before collapsing in the second half and losing. On Wednesday night at the UC, the Bulls got off to another fast start, but experienced a little bit of déjà vu in a disappointing 104-96 loss. The Bulls didn't blow a 27-point second half lead this time, but they did see a 15-point first quarter lead evaporate, thanks in large part to Brandon Jennings, Larry Sanders and some brutal play on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter.
With Kirk Hinrich out with an elbow cut (that must be one NASTY cut), Nate Robinson got the start at point guard. Nate sparked the Bulls in the early going, hitting three three-pointers in the first quarter and scoring 13 points overall in the opening frame. The Bulls' offense as a whole did a nice job in the first quarter, as all five starters scored at least four points and the team racked up eight assists and 33 points. There were some sloppy turnovers, but those were mainly courtesy of the bench guys.
Meanwhile, the Bucks were also sloppy and just downright bad, as their talented yet somewhat inconsistent backcourt of Jennings and Monta Ellis got off to a slow start. It was especially mystifying to see Jennings not take advantage of Robinson, but that sure would change as the game wore on.
The Bucks started to get back in the game in the second quarter, as the Bulls' bench really struggled. Marquis Teague was a train wreck in his brief stint, and the defense began to fall victim to dribble penetration. Jennings and Ellis finally started to wake up, scoring 16 points between them in the quarter. Luckily for the Bulls, Carlos Boozer continued his run of strong play, scoring nine points in the quarter and finishing the half with 14 points and seven boards. Like recent games, Boozer was also doing some nice things on the offensive glass and on defense, which apparently was a part of his New Year's Resolution.
The Bulls took a 57-50 lead into the half before Jennings and Larry Sanders happened in the third quarter. Jennings lost his mind in the third, scoring 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting and 4-of-7 from three-point land. On the other end, Sanders was seemingly erasing or affecting every Bulls shot near the basket. The Bucks quickly overtook the Bulls, also being helped by five straight missed shots from Richard Hamilton. Hamilton was mostly dreadful on the night, going 2-of-11 in 16 minutes and not sniffing the floor during the fourth quarter.
The Bulls went into the fourth down just one, but could never get over the hump. Every single time the Bulls threatened to grab a lead from the Bucks, they couldn't get a key stop. The Bulls' transition defense was especially awful (and was most of the second half), allowing Mike Dunleavy and others a bevy of open jumpers that they were more than eager to take and make.
Offensively, the Bulls managed just 16 points in the fourth quarter on 6-of-25 shooting, and per usual, didn't get many quality looks at the bucket. Nate was out of control, Boozer didn't get enough touches and Belinelli was basically driving into the lane and praying for a foul that never came. And anytime the Bulls drove the lane, there were usually several Bucks there to challenge the shot. Milwaukee finished with a whopping 15 blocks on the night, including five in the fourth quarter. Sanders himself had seven blocks in the game.
As much as I love to rip on Kirk, there's little doubt that he would have been helpful in this game. Nate started great, but he just wore out as the game went on. He seemed to be battling cramps late in the game and was essentially useless in the second half. Nate didn't have a clue against Jennings (who finished with 35 points) and the offense completely went in the tank after the strong start. Boozer did finish with 22 points and 11 rebounds, but he only took six shots in the second half, and a big part of that blame can be heaped on the point guard for not getting him the ball.
So, the roller coaster ride continues. The Bulls looked pretty great in their past three games, and played one of their best offensive games of the year on Monday against the Cavs. It looked like they were going to carry that momentum over to tonight, but just couldn't sustain it. Freaking Jim Boylan.