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Know the Bulls’ playoff enemy, Bucks edition

they’re the defending champs for a reason

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Things were quite a bit different the last time the Bulls faced the Bucks in the playoffs. This was back in 2015 when Giannis Antetokounmpo was still a young buck (booo this pun -yfbb), and who could forget how that series ended? Giannis got ejected for a dirty foul on Mike Dunleavy Jr. in a 54-point Bulls victory.

That season ended with a loss to LeBron James’ Cavaliers and Tom Thibodeau’s firing, with things going downhill for the remainder of the decade in Chicago.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, it took a few more years but Giannis soon developed into a two-time MVP and the Bucks became a powerhouse, erasing a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the championship with Giannis as Finals MVP.

This season, the Bucks dealt with something of a championship hangover, starting 6-8 and only sitting at 19-13 in mid-December. Injury and COVID-19 issues didn’t help, and Milwaukee’s 51-31 final record and plus-3.4 average point differential isn’t nearly as dominant as past seasons.

A locked-in Bucks team is certainly better than that record suggests, and the Bulls saw that in the last two matchups of the regular-season series. After two competitive losses, the Bulls then lost by 28 and 21 points, respectively. Combining those beatdowns with Chicago’s generally awful play of late and all season against elite teams, all would suggest this will be a short series.

But let’s take a closer look at the Bucks’ performance this year and see if there’s any hope against Mike Budenholzer’s squad.

Giannis and the Bucks’ Big 3

Giannis is having another ridiculous season, averaging 29.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 55.3% from the field. His 3-point shooting still hasn’t improved (29.3%), but his free-throw percentage got back over 72% on a whopping 11.4 attempts per game and his mid-range game did improve. He shot over 41% from 3-10 feet, 10-16 feet and 16 feet to the 3-point line. So, while the goal is still to force him to take jumpers, he was more dangerous than ever away from the rim. And, of course, it’s hard to keep him away from the rim. Good luck, Patrick Williams and company!

The Bucks outscored opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions with Giannis on the court, per NBA.com, and they were a dominant team when their star trio of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday actually took the court together. They played 47 games together this season, going 37-10 in those games and racking up an 11.1 net rating in their 783 minutes sharing the floor Meanwhile, the Bulls’ trio of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic was a minus-1.1 in 1,206 minutes.

Middleton’s play dipped this season on both ends of the court, but he’s still an excellent player who poses matchup challenges with his size and skill. Holiday is one of the best two-way point guards in the NBA, playing by far his most efficient basketball with the Bucks while also playing hounding perimeter defense. This trio is really damn good and a brutal matchup for anybody, leading Milwaukee to the No. 3 offense while playing at one of the fastest paces in the NBA.

Brook Lopez looks pretty healthy now

Lopez played the first game of the season, but then didn’t play again until March 14 because of back surgery. It took a bit for Lopez to find his rhythm again, but he closed the regular season strong.

That included an absolute humiliation of Vucevic in the last matchup. While Lopez went for 28 points on 9-of-14 shooting to go along with seven rebounds, three blocks (several stuffs right back in Vooch’s face) and two steals, Vucevic shot 3-of-19 from the field and got roasted on the other end. He provided little resistance against Lopez, with the Bucks big man crushing it inside and even getting to the line nine times. When Lopez is having success with his Brad Miller-esque drives, it’s a problem.

Lopez won’t do that all the time, but he showed he still has that in him. His mere presence is also important to the Bucks’ defense, which prides itself on shutting down the paint and forcing teams to beat them from the outside. Milwaukee is one of the best teams in the NBA in points in the paint allowed, and Lopez’s hulking presence playing drop defense will only make it more difficult for the Bulls to score at the rim. Chicago scored just 34 points in the paint in the March 22 matchup and 42 in the April 5 matchup with Lopez in the lineup. Of course, the Bulls only scored 20 points in the paint in the first game on Jan. 21, so part of this is just a Bulls problem.

Milwaukee’s defense and the turd quarter

While the Bucks have some elite defenders and are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the NBA, their defense has been leakier than usual this season. They finished just 14th in defensive rating after boasting elite units in recent seasons, though there was also some slippage last season after leading the league twice in a row.

Lopez was obviously missed, though he hasn’t fixed everything. The Bucks ranked 20th in defensive rating post-All-Star break, with Lopez playing in a chunk of those games and the defense not necessarily being at elite levels when he was on the court.

Interestingly, one major issue for their defense has been being flat coming out of halftimes. The Bucks have typically started games strong defensively (ranking third in first-quarter defensive rating), and were also solid in the second and fourth quarters. But for whatever season, in third quarters they were the worst defensive team in the NBA, and by a rather wide margin. This might not be a thing in the playoffs, assuming the Bucks are more focused, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Milwaukee is also susceptible to the 3-ball. The Bucks allowed the most 3-point attempts and 3-point makes this season, and the percentage allowed ranked 19th. This has been the case for years and is clearly part of the scheme that focuses on keeping teams out of the paint. The Bulls don’t have the 3-point shooting to really hurt the Bucks, especially without Lonzo Ball, but they’ll have to hope the shooters they do have catch fire. The Bucks shoot a lot of 3s themselves and shoot them well, so Chicago really needs to be hitting given how low their attempts usually are. Hoping for a Coby White Game?

It will also be interesting to see who the Bucks throw at DeRozan and LaVine, and if they decide to trap or play straight-up. Holiday and Wesley Matthews are rugged defenders, while Middleton, Giannis and others can be used if needed. Milwaukee will likely use Giannis as a roamer while helping off non-shooters, but in crunch time perhaps he takes on the prime-time assignments.

The former Bull

The Bobby Portis era was not particularly pleasant in Chicago, but he became a cult hero for the Bucks during their championship run last season. Portis continues to be an important piece, filling in as a starter in the frontcourt when Lopez was out. With Lopez back, the Bucks are starting Holiday-Matthews-Middleton-Giannis-Lopez, moving Portis into a sixth-man role.

Portis averaged a career-high 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 47.9% from the field and 39.3% from 3-point range. He helps open up the court with his floor spacing and is an excellent rebounder. While his defense is still nothing to write home about, his overall energy is important for Milwaukee.

Portis would surely like nothing more than to torch his former team in this first-round series, and we know he’ll let the Bulls know about it if he does.

The Grayson Allen drama

Grayson Allen injuring Alex Caruso with a cheap shot up in Milwaukee feels like ages ago. Bulls fans were out for blood after that and kept booing Allen throughout the rest of the regular season, though he got the last laugh with his team dominating both games.

For their part, the Bulls players hit Allen with some hard fouls in those games from Derrick Jones Jr. and Vooch. While the Bulls shouldn’t hesitate to knock Allen on his ass again as long as it’s just a good hard foul, I hope nothing gets too out of hand and the situation doesn’t become a dominant storyline, especially if frustration sets in for the Bulls as the series goes along.

Allen is easy to hate, but I would rather not go out like Giannis and the Bucks did in 2015.

***

Of course, I would rather not ‘go out’ at all, but that’s probably not in the cards given the circumstances. The Bucks weren’t as dominant overall this season as they were in their title campaign, but they were pretty damn close when their main guys were healthy. And now, they’re mostly healthy (George Hill is dealing with an abdominal injury and Serge Ibaka was sick to close the season).

I’m just hoping this series will be relatively competitive. The time off will help LaVine and Caruso, but they haven’t been playing at their peak for a while. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Bucks make things ugly, and they aren’t totally invincible, to where the Bulls at least have some shotmaking talent there that can make things interesting late in close games.

For more on Bulls-Bucks, listen to our Cash Considerations-Gyro Step crossover pod: