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Finally 'healthy', the Bulls look to close out Milwaukee in Game 6

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If the Bulls want a series with Cleveland, all they have to do is finish off the Bucks on Thursday night.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

I can't pinpoint the exact moment when Bulls-Bucks Game 5 became the sort of game that raises your blood pressure, turns your insides upside down and makes you want to throw the remote through the TV, but I know it got there eventually. Let's be real, there were plenty of different trigger warnings: the Bulls shot only 7-for-30 in that fourth quarter, went 3-for-20 on shots in the paint for the period and, on the night, hit under 30 percent (8-of-27) of their uncontested jumpers.

It was like watching a particularly frustrating Bears game, the kind where they can't get anything going all day but are still within striking distance, so you stick with it hoping for the best. That level of faith is eventually betrayed by even more exaggerated miscues in crunch time and eventually you're upset at yourself for caring enough to get so distressed over this stuff. On Monday, resign set in one missed layup at a time.

That was Game 5. There has yet to be a point in this series where it felt like the Bulls were in serious jeopardy of being eliminated, but now it's easy to think back to Game 3's double overtime victory and realize how much trouble the Bulls would be in right now if they didn't pull that one out.

It's left us fans in a weird spot, where we're simultaneously giddy about potentially facing a Cavs team without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith (for two games) in the second round while also being petrified the Bulls are just one more off night away from going to a Game 7 in a series they once led 3-0. I fully expect the Bulls to take care of business in Game 6 in front of UC North, but I also expected them to close things out in Game 5. The Bucks might have other ideas.

Game 6 arrives under the guise that this is the first time the Bulls have truly been healthy. K.C. Johnson said the Bulls haven't had a clean injury sheet all season before tonight, and that sounds right to me. Of course, as seems to perpetually be the case during the Tom Thibodeau era, it sure seems like the Bulls are still beat to shit even when healthy.

It starts with Nikola Mirotic, who has not been good in his first playoff appearance. Maybe that's because knee injury he suffered in Game 2 is far from actually healed, even if it hasn't stopped Thibodeau from playing him 20 minutes each game since he returned. This always struck me as a series the Bulls should be able to win without Mirotic, and that he'd be more vital next round. Maybe that was a foolish assumption, because with Niko struggling, the Bulls are also struggling.

Mirotic is averaging just 4.2 points per game while shooing 29 percent from the floor and 28 percent from three. He has only grabbed two rebounds in his 39 minutes since returning from injury and just doesn't look right. Even without Love, the Bulls are going to need Mirotic to match buckets with the Cavs if they're lucky enough to advance past Milwaukee, so his level of play up to this point has not been encouraging. I'd blame that on his health and on the way he's being used more so than "playoff inexperience", or whatever.

Joakim Noah is another issue. I think we were all hoping that the intensity of the postseason would raise Noah's game after a poor regular season, but that hasn't happened so far. Check the numbers:

Points per game Rebound percentage Block percentage Steal percentage True shooting percentage
Regular season Noah 7.2 17.2 2.6 1.2 48.2
Playoff Noah 5.6 18.1 2.3 1.8 38.3

It's been evident all year that Noah isn't the same player. His usage has dropped five points (18.7 to 13.7), he's struggled to finish around the rim and he isn't a threat anywhere else on the floor. What surprised me is that the numbers show the Noah-Gasol front court that we all complain about so much has actually been effective: in the playoffs, the Bulls have a +8 rating when those two are scoring the floor together. The offense has been mediocre (99.2 per 100) but the defense has been great (91.2 per 100). That's not a trend I expect to continue, but it's worth monitoring.

The Noah-Pau front court brings us to a quote from Rose after Game 5. The assumption here is that he was talking about Milwaukee's defense, but I think it might work in relation to the Bulls' offense, too:

"There's nowhere to go when you're on the floor," Rose said postgame Monday.

The Bucks' current starting lineup has four guys with a wingspan of 6'11 or longer, plus Carter-Williams, who is the biggest point guard in the NBA. It's clear that length is giving the Bulls and specifically Rose some trouble. I've always thought Rose played more aggressive -- and as a result, better -- against small point guards, but even if MCW isn't particularly good, Thibodeau has already acknowledged he can't play Aaron Brooks in this series because Kidd will counter with Carter-Williams for the obvious size mismatch.

Finally, I'm looking for a big game out of Mike Dunleavy. It often seems like the Bulls are a much better team when Dunleavy is cooking, and he was held scoreless for the fifth time this season on Monday. The Bucks' defense is so aggressive with their traps that Dunleavy should be open if the Bulls can rotate the ball after Milwaukee blitzes. If he can knock down a few shots tonight, it would go a long way towards finally ending this series.

In a way, the last two games have been a microcosm of the season. Just when you're feeling good about this team -- hey, they're up 3-0! -- they find a way to suck and readjust your perception of their actual worth. They've played up or down to competition all season, and it seems like that isn't changing yet. Who knows, it might be a good thing with Cleveland looming next round. But first thing's first: win tonight and get the hell out of Milwaukee. It's a lovely city, but not this time of year.