Over and over again, we see a 50-win team face a team at or below .500 in the Eastern Conference wing of the NBA Playoffs; and every year, there is that game that tells you no matter what hot game or two that the lower seed has, there is no saving grace in the overall series. Game One of the Bulls-Bucks series was "that game".
Saturday evening, the Bulls beat the Bucks by a score of 103-91 in Game 1 of this first round matchup of the NBA Playoffs. Jimmy Butler led the team in scoring with 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting (2-for-5 on threes; 7-for-8 on FTs), along with six assists, in almost 35 minutes.
Derrick Rose was the feel-good story of the night, scoring a highly efficient 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting that included a bonus 3-for-7 night on threes and a game-leading seven assists in only around 27 minutes in his first playoff game since April 2012. He knocked down some threes that we are accustomed seeing him miss, but went into repetition on the pick-n-roll when Milwaukee wouldn't double team, attacked the basket, called for the ball on rebounds early to ignite fast breaks, went over the screens called by terrible shooting Bucks point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
Whether of not this was the Rose of old, Jason Kidd did not have this great defense layered with plans to prevent Rose. And Rose displayed the heart with which we all fell in love, years ago, by exploiting that gap in the opposition's gameplan.
The game had tight moments, but the Bulls largely ran away with the game over a stretch without Rose on the floor, when they went on a 10-2 run to take a 60-51 lead into halftime. The Bucks closed to gap to three with 8:37 remaining in the third quarter, but Rose hit his three threes over the next five minutes, to lead a Bulls 20-9 run; an 11 point lead that would never be threatened.
- The Bucks defense was surprisingly a non-factor. When they showed on Rose, it was at the risk of leaving shooter great looks on the outside. The Bulls took 32 three-point attempts, which they only did once all season, hitting 12, for a rate of 37.5%. On top of Rose and Butler's, Aaron Brooks and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. each went 3-for-5. Brooks led the Bulls bench scorers with 13 points.
- The Bulls owned the glass, outrebounding the Bucks 52-41. That is prone to happen when the Bulls only allow 39.3% shooting from the field, so their surrendering 13 offensive rebounds becomes forgivable when 55 shots were up for grabs on that end of the court.
- The Bulls frontcourt dominated where expected. Pau Gasol had a terrible shooting night, only scoring ten points on a 5-for-17 shooting night, but led the team with 13 rebounds and added three blocks. Joakim Noah played almost 36 minutes, despite nagging knee problems, and was super-aggressive to help preventing penetration and grabbed 11 boards himself. Taj Gibson was a beast in over 24 minutes off the bench, grabbing 11 rebounds to go with eight points, thanks to six attempts at the charity stripe.
- Michael Carter-Williams is not very good. He was blocked twice, turned the ball over three times, only scored nine points in 13 shots. His 34 minutes were largely dominated by being clueless on how to handle Rose, Brooks, the ball, or go to contingency plans when his initial efforts were thwarted by the Bulls D. The only way to take the ball out of his hands would be Kidd limiting his minutes, or implementing some triangle schemes to rotate the ball to shooters and give his bigs the shot at resting on offense to improve their defensive efforts, but the Bucks still need to find those shooters.
- Unbelievably, the Bucks didn't have any plan to create perimeter shots. The Bulls moved the Bucks best shooters off the three-point line. Only 16 threes were attempted by a bunch that includes Khris Middleton (18 points on 7-for-17, 2-for-6 on threes) and O.J. Mayo (six points on 1-for-7 shooting, 1-for-2 on threes), and Jared Dudley (two points on 1-for-4 shooting, 0-for-2 on threes).
Dudley unexpectedly played hurt, and only for 12 minutes. Ersan Ilyasova, like Middleton, had the volume of five three-point attemts, but only hit one. There is a big deficit for the Bucks on the inside, so this is their only hope; and, as in the regular season, they are dodging it.
- The Bulls prevented penetration with the gang defense at which Tom Thibodeau excels. The aggressive trapping by the Bulls was suffocating when it was clear that the Bucks were overcommitting to their will to take the ball to the hole without contingency plans for shooters. The Bucks rewarded the Bulls for not staying home on shooters.
- The score is skewed by the Bucks second chance points. The Bulls forced tons of misses with gang defense that allowed for John Henson to be left alone to grab five offensive rebounds and score 12. The Bucks had 18 second chance points that were easily conceded under these circumstances.
- Nikola Mirotic was a non-factor and that isn't so bad. With Gasol, Noah, and Gibson dominating inside-out on the defensive end, Niko largely got left out. And that was O.K. Mirotic barely scored five on 2-for-5 shooting, but that was largely because of the big-heavy rotation with Dunleavy and Butler logging their 34-35 minutes on the wing. There will be Niko games when Milwaukee's defense stops Rose's penetration and Butler's basket cuts. When Noah is ouchy or when Gasol is intolerable. This was not one of them
It is difficult to not project the remainder of a series when a game is so one-sided without the extraordinary occurrences. The Bulls played with the pace Thibs wants, pushing the ball on rebounds and turnovers. The Bulls won in spite of turning the ball over 19 times, but the Bucks were only a .500 team, despite leading the league in forcing turnovers. The Bulls size dominated the glass, but Milwaukee lacks muscle. The Bulls took tons of threes, but that was because the Bucks gang defense is prone to leaving shooters open. The Bucks couldn't get to the basket because the Bulls were unafraid of the Bucks willingness to shoot from long range and diversity of competent shooters.
This may have been the fastest game of the series, so variance will come into play when the perfect storm of Gasol as a matador, Rose as a bricklayer, Noah as a peg leg, Giannis Antetokounmpo dominance, Middleton sharpshooting, and Mayo having that one dominant shift come into play. But that game or two will not define the series.
The Bulls will take a 1-0 lead into Game 2 at the United Center on Monday, April 20 at 7:00 p.m. CST.
Stats via NBA.com.