The 2015 NBA Playoffs are finally here and the Bulls dramatically wrapped up the third seed in the Eastern Conference to face the sixth-seeded Bucks. You can find the schedule for the seven-game series, which begins on Saturday, here.
Bulls fans wanted this matchup over one with the fifth-seed Wizards for many reasons, and most can be seen immediately in a data comparison of the two squads over the 2014-15 regular season:
- The Bucks slipped into the playoffs with the 15th-best record. The incredibly average data doesn't just stop at the .500 record, either. They were right at league average in margin of victory, pace, overall shooting, and offensive rebounding.
- The Bucks are colder than they started. They've lost 18 of 29 since the All-Star Break. After a stretch of losing 13 of 16, they have closed out the season 7-5 in their final 12, but the trade deadline may have been their downfall for this particular season.
- The Bucks don't have any great players, but have a lot of guys who do things really well. This is a lazy cliché when you normally hear it, but it fits this team so damned well. The first thing that stands out about Milwaukee is that they don't have "THAT GUY". You know who THAT GUY is. He is the guy who puts an opponent away, kills scoreless runs with buckets, forces the other team into foul trouble, or nags an opponent who is played perfect ball by keeping the game close.
Not having THAT GUY doesn't mean that a team can't accumulate regular season wins. But the playoffs are different, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise, in this case, because there are a lot less bums to slay in the playoffs and other teams make adjustments.
That said, Milwaukee's rotation is full of guys who do some things really well. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a freakishly long and quick 51% two-point shooter who plays awesome D, handles the ball very well, can get to the line and hit his free throws, but he can't shoot from any range and hasn't yet emerged as a high volume scorer. Khris Middleton is an amazing shooter, who is easily hidden at the two guard to do everything you want from a two-guard, but isn't a true primary scorer who can drive the ball inside and get to the line. John Henson is a great shot blocker, but is such a liability elsewhere that he can't get the minutes. Ersan Ilyasova is a hell of a shooter, but doesn't rebound well enough to match with bigs. Zaza Pachulia is a really good rebounder who can't do anything on offense. Jared Dudley does almost everything really well, but he plays the same position as Giannis and isn't healthy, and makes the lineup awkward in other spots. Michael Carter-Williams is aggressive and a hell of a finisher at the rim, but is kinda' bad at everything else.
- Jason Kidd played a large role in the Bucks going from a 15-win team to a 41-win team. There are flaws in the Bucks rotation where Kidd has to be overwhelmed with dilemmas, but he has made the playoffs in his first two seasons as a head coach. Last year, he got a bad rep for the Nets underachievement, but we're seeing that the Nets have been a mess for a while.
The 2013-14 Bucks were 30th in defensive rating, 29th in margin of victory, 29th in defensive rebounding, 26th in effective FG%, 20th in 3P%, and the list goes on and on. This year's squad may be the definition of mediocre in many fields, but they have come a long way. As for the defense and long range shooting, they are much better than average.
- The Bucks are among the best defensive teams in the league. And it is real-deal gang defense, for which Kidd deserves huge props. They finished third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions and led the league in forcing turnovers. The Bulls struggled against them this season, shooting and scoring well below their overall averages. The Bucks only allowed 92.0 PPG to the Bulls in 43.4% shooting.
- The Bulls won three of the four matchups against the Bucks in the regular season. The Bucks struggled even more against the Bulls defense, though. The Bulls defense struggled early and picked up as the season went along, allowing the second-lowest rate of three-point attempts. The Bucks were 7th in the league in 3P% and the Bulls were the Eastern Conference team that allowed the Bucks to take the least threes.
- The Bucks best offense has been three-point shooting, but that's where they have been cold. Milwaukee started the season shooting .373 from beyond the arc in their first 64 games, but that heat has iced down to .327 in their last 18. Losing Brandon Knight at the trade deadline and his .409 3P% played a big role in this. His replacement, Carter-Williams, has shot an abysmal .143 on his 28 threes over his 25 games with the team.
But the team has also been without Dudley (back) and his .385 3P%, who will miss Game 1 of this series, for nine of the last 15 contests. Their lights-out, breakout sharpshooter, Middleton, who shot .438 on threes over the team's first 64, shot only .310 of the team's last 18. O.J. Mayo has been up and down with his shooting and has dealt with a hamstring injury since shortly after the All-Star Break, shooting under .154 on threes in March.
Without a post-up threat and being an average penetration team, hitting threes and taking threes at such low rates could be their downfall.
- The Bulls need to move the ball into their shots. Sure, the Bulls need to get to the basket. Every team needs to get to the basket. But the Bulls were 7th in the league in catch-and-shoot FG%, but only 14th in points created by assists per 48 minutes. When a great defensive team like the Bucks make it difficult to get inside, the men without the ball need to create shots and the ball handler needs to be in sync with them.
This all seems like a poor man's version of the Bulls' 2011 first-round series against the Pacers. A team without a star coached by a young, inexperienced bulldog; best player is a budding two-way star; the defense will gang up on the strong side and ram a boot in your throat; divisional series hours away from home.
This Bulls team isn't what that team was, and this Bucks team doesn't have the size that Pacers team had, but the frustration potential is there: if this easily winnable series last six or seven games, instead of four or five.
And there will be blood!... Maybe. Hopefully not.
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com