In a weird NBA scheduling glitch, the Chicago Bulls get a back-to-back dosage of the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday and Friday night. Last season, the Bulls faced the same situation against New York, and dropped both games against the 32-50 Knicks on consecutive nights.
A double dosage of the Milwaukee Bucks means the Bulls get to face old friend Tony Snell for the first time since they traded him to the Bucks in exchange for Michael Carter-Williams back in mid-October. The Bucks have turned Snell into a competent NBA player and he has started all 22 games this season, averaging 8.3 points per game on 39.6 percent from the field.
Although we must wait until Friday night before Snell makes his much-anticipated return to the United Center, the Bulls next two games against the Bucks continues an extremely emotional week of homecomings for Chicago Bulls fans. We cried during Pau Gasol's brief video tribute in the Bulls 95-91 win against the Spurs last Thursday night. We reminisced about the good old days as Tom Thibodeau went nuts about every single call during the Timberwolves 99-94 win against the Bulls on Tuesday evening. Many tears were shed when Thibodeau embraced old battery mates Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson during the first half of the game.
Regardless of the emotion the reunion with Snell will bring tonight, the Chicago Bulls need to go out there and win a game. They are 4-6 in their last ten games and five of those six losses came against teams with losing records.
The Bulls continue their inexplicably inconsistent play. In that 10-game span, they also have wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs.
The Milwaukee Bucks will try to snap a three-game losing streak tonight. Jabari Parker (19.4 ppg.) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (22.3 ppg.) lead the charge for the Bucks. No other player averages double digit scoring for this team.
This game is important for both teams because only a game and a half separates them in the wide open Eastern Conference playoff race. This game is on TNT, but that doesn’t mean an automatic win for the Bulls as FanRag Sports Network NBA editor Jason Patt pointed out in a recent tweet.
#TNTBulls sadly NOT in effect today since it's a road game, so no guaranteed win today— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) December 15, 2016
Keys to the Game
Consistent Energy Level Throughout
So far this season, the Chicago Bulls have played well against great teams and played poorly against bad teams. This trend is eerily reminiscent of last season when the Bulls bad losses came back to bite them at the end of the season when they missed the playoffs by two games. The Bulls have turned in wildly inconsistent efforts this season, and it has equated to some very ugly losses.
In the Bulls loss on Tuesday night against Minnesota, the Timberwolves beat the Chicago Bulls in a lot of the hustle categories. They outrebounded the Bulls both on the offensive and defensive glass and had a 16-11 advantage in fast break points. Overall, the Bulls just weren't hustling as hard as they should have and it ultimately equated to the Timberwolves erasing a 21-point deficit en route to a 99-94 victory. Here are some examples of the Bulls lack of hustle during the game Tuesday night.
That brief moment where Dwyane Wade gets frustrated about his missed shot and then begins half jogging back on defense gives Zach LaVine all the time he needs to get behind the Bulls defense for an easy two points. Jimmy Butler also gets beat down the floor as he doesn’t recognize that LaVine is behind him until it is too late.
In this one, LaVine simply outruns Wade down the floor. Although both videos involved a lack of hustle from Wade, he wasn’t the only culprit of minimal effort on Tuesday night.
These losses against bad teams should have taught the Bulls that they can't continue to overlook any opponent. This is a rivalry game that could have potential playoff seeding implications down the road, therefore the Bulls need to approach this game with the same mindset as the games against Cleveland and San Antonio.
The Bulls need to play with energy for 48 minutes not only to try to win this game, but to set the tone for how they want to approach every game for the rest of the season. Playing with energy is largely indicative of the culture of a team and the Bulls need to continue the process of improving this culture by figuring out how to give a full effort for an entire 48-minute basketball game.
Don't Turn the Ball Over
Although the Bucks haven't excelled at generating turnovers this season, they still make teams pay when they do get turnovers. Per Sporting-Charts.com, the Bucks are tied for fifth in the NBA with 17.9 points off turnovers per game.
Turnovers often lead to transition opportunities which is another category the Milwaukee Bucks have performed well in this season. They are tied for seventh in the NBA (with the Bulls) with 1.15 points per possession on transition opportunities. Overall, they have four players in the 69th percentile or higher in points per possession in transition.
Even though the Bucks haven't generated as many turnovers this season as they have in the past, they are still dangerous in this department simply because of the length and size across the entirety of the lineup. Their shortest player is Jason Terry, but outside of him everybody else is 6-feet-4-inches or taller. Particularly concerning is Antetokounmpo and his 6-foot-11-inch frame and 7-foot-3-inch wingspan. He is tied for fifth in the NBA in steals with two per game.
In terms of preventing turnovers for the Bulls, it all starts with Rondo. He is tied for 18th in the NBA in turnovers per game with 2.7. This doesn't seem important, but consider that every player tied with or above Rondo on this list has a higher usage percentage than he does. Overall, Rondo averages 22.3 turnovers per 100 plays.
Rondo needs to focus on two aspects of his passing. He can't get lazy with his passes, because the Buck's athletic wing players will simply step into passing lanes and intercept passes for easy dunks on the other end. He also needs to avoid "fancy pass syndrome." High-risks passes won't fly in this game, because the Bucks are so physically lengthy across the roster and can deflect or misdirect almost any pass.
The Bucks are fifth in the NBA in fast break points per game with 15.6. The Bulls can't afford to give the Bucks extra opportunities to run the break with careless turnovers. They are too good in transition and will capitalize on the Bulls mistakes.
Protect the Paint
The Milwaukee Bucks are second in the NBA in points in the paint, averaging 49.3 per game which makes up 47 percent of the 104.0 points they average per game. Despite the presence of Taj Gibson, Cristiano Felicio and Robin Lopez, the Bulls have struggled defending the paint this season. They give up 44.8 paint points per game which is the ninth most in the NBA.
Antetokounmpo and Parker, who account for 40 percent of the Bucks scoring, do most of their damage in the paint. Per Basketball-Reference.com, 42.5 percent of Parker's shot attempts come from within three feet of the basket, while 52.6 percent of Antetokounmpo's shot attempts come from this same range.
The Bulls ability to protect the paint will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game since the Bucks rely so heavily on paint points for their offense. Furthermore, the big man pairing of John Henson and Greg Monroe are traditional big men who are very effective in the paint as well.
The Bulls are 12th in the league in rim protection (measured by field goal percentage of the opponent while the Bulls were defending the rim) and will need a special effort from guys like Taj Gibson, Cristiano Felicio and Robin Lopez to stop the Bucks in the paint tonight.
Stopping the Bucks in the paint will also come down to the Bulls guards’ ability to stay in front of their man and not allow easy drives to the basket. The Bulls need to avoid unnecessary gambles as well because it creates the possibility of a defensive breakdown which could lead to easy inside points.
If the Bulls don't do this, it will give them an even better shot of winning this game.