After six long seasons, the Chicago Bulls are back in the playoffs. They started off as one of the best teams in the league and were at the top of the Eastern Conference right before the All-Star Break. But as we all know, the wheels fell off near the end of the regular season. The slide tanked Chicago’s seeding all the way down to 6th, just outside of the play-in spots.
Despite the rough ending, this was still one of the best Bulls seasons in recent memory. They finished with 46 wins, their most since the 2014-15. Chicago also had two All-Stars this season in the duo of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan. It was a wild ride of a season with many highs including ones which lifted the roof off of the United Center.
Now the Bulls are set to face off against the reigning NBA Champions Milwaukee Bucks. This will be a clash of central division opponents and a matchup which hasn’t been kind to Chicago. They lost all four matchups to Milwaukee this season including one by 28 points on March 22nd. It’s going to be an uphill climb for Chicago as they try to take down one of the best teams in the entire league. Let’s break down the matchup.
Keys to the Series
The Bulls Defense needs to wake up
The loss of Lonzo Ball was a hammer blow to Chicago. Not only are they not missing their best passer on the team but also one of their best defenders. However, even the absence of Ball can fully explain the defensive breakdowns we have seen from this team as of late. It looks to be a complete 180 from the early season Bulls we saw where they were flying to the ball, forcing turnovers and then taking advantage by scoring in transition. Now there are missed rotations, confusion on switches, and leaving opposing players wide open at the three-point line. Chicago finished with a defensive rating of 113.2, which was bottom ten in the NBA. It was even worse in the final ten games as they finished with a defensive rating of 120.0, third worst in the league. Now the Bulls aren't defensive juggernauts and given the roster construction, it feels harsh to expect them to be. But statistically they cannot be near the bottom of the league in defense and expect to compete in the playoffs. Good offensive teams like the Bucks will carve Chicago up if they are not tight with their switches or rotations off ball.
The biggest thing for Chicago will be stopping the drives of Milwaukee. Any one of the big three in Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday are adept at getting to the cup. The Bulls perimeter defender need to be on their toes and not give up easy drives to the basket. If they do then it will force defenders to come down for help, which will lead to trouble given the perimeter shooting Milwaukee surrounds their stars with. It could be a barrage from downtown, a dunk fest, or frighteningly both if the Bulls don’t amp it up on the defensive end.
Turnovers will also be a factor for Chicago defensively. Any sort of offensive mistake by Milwaukee needs to be pounced on and the Bulls need to do what they do best and push the pace for easy baskets. We saw this early in the season where if the Bulls get their opponents to turn the ball over, it leads to easy offense and gets them in a groove. It will be a challenge, however, as Milwaukee is one of the better teams at not turning over the ball. The Bucks average only 12.7 turnovers per game, 11th lowest in the league. Chicago is strong in this department too, committing just 12.1 per game which is fifth lowest.
Trying to slow down Giannis
Speaking of defense, the main problem for Chicago will be trying to limit Giannis’s offensive impact. In his four games against the Bulls this season, he averaged 26.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and five assists. Although his scoring average was a bit lower than that against other teams, he has shown that he can take over a game anytime he wants. The dilemma for the Bulls is that they don’t really have an agile big who can come close to matching up with him. Their best defender is a guard in Alex Caruso, who was ok against Giannis given the size disadvantage the matchup presents. But he can’t exactly be the main defender the Bulls throw at him. Nikola Vucevic doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with him and Derrick Jones Jr. may have the length but he can be easily outmuscled on any drive.
The only viable option Chicago is Patrick Williams. It’s going to be a tough test for the young player in a playoff environment trying to guard one of the best players in the game. Another strategy to probably try is doubling immediately whenever Giannis drives but that comes with a huge risk as the Bucks will have shooters waiting on the perimeter ready for a kick-out. It’s going to be a trial by fire for the Bulls defensively as they search out different ways to stop Giannis.
Battle of the Big Men
The last time these two teams played, Brook Lopez was the star of the show. He scored 28 points on nine of 14 shooting along with seven rebound, whereas it was a bad night for Nikola Vucevic as he struggled to make an impact on either side of the ball.
Lopez is an important player for Milwaukee as he not only gives them a presence on the boards but also can stretch the floor. Vucevic will be his counterpart and he can’t afford to go through the type of lulls on offense as he did during the regular season where he couldn’t buy a basket. He’s going to need to be near automatic in the paint and take advantage of his array of post moves as well as splash open jumpers off the pick and rolls. The three-point shooting is an added bonus at this point as nailing his two point attempts needs to be a priority for Vucevic.
Defensively it’s going to be a much tougher task as he’s going to be dragged out to the perimeter with the threat of Lopez waiting in the corner. That being said, Vucevic cannot get dominated on the boards by his opponents, especially if he has the advantage of being closer to the basket to begin with on most defensive possessions. Limiting second chance possessions will go a long way in helping Chicago’s woes on defense and stopping Milwaukee’s bigs from wrecking havoc on the glass will be key. Vucevic has had an up and down season and if there ever is a time for him to step up, it’s now. He’s going to need to be close to the player we saw last season on offense after the trade, and at the least hold his own defensively.
Will the Bulls stars step up?
It goes without saying, but it’s up to DeRozan and LaVine to carry the load offensively. They have easily been Chicago’s two best players on offense and will need to be at their absolute best in this series. Each will be up against a tough defensive matchup with Holiday on LaVine while Middleton will defend DeRozan.
For DeMar, he needs to continue to get to his sweet spots on the court and draw contact. These were the two main components of what made him such a prolific offensive player this past season. The ability to always be in control while maneuvering his way in the mid-range, ending in a shot or free throws. Milwaukee will know this and the focus will be on him in possessions where he goes isolation. This is where you would like to see DeRozan use his play making abilities. Now this goes both ways as it will require the other Bulls players to move smartly off the ball while the defense is mainly focused on DeMar.
LaVine is the more dynamic scorer of the two as he can score on all three levels and the Bulls will need him to do just that. The question is just how healthy is LaVine? He missed time during the second half of the season due to a knee issue and at times looked super off. He’s going to have to use his athleticism to generate space for himself to shoot off the dribble as well as getting to the rim. LaVine has shown that if he can heat up in a hurry at any point in a game. LaVine needs to be able to tip toe the fine line between forcing things on offense while also staying aggressive. There can’t be the moments of questionable shot selections, especially in situations where the Bulls absolutely need a bucket.
Shot Selection (aka taking more threes)
This has been an issue all season. The Bulls are dead last in three-point frequency at 34.2 percent and it’s an issue which absolutely must be addressed. Too many times we see the Bulls settle for a contest mid-range jumper or even worse, pass up a three-point shot for a two-pointer. If the Bulls want to be an efficient offense, they cannot substitute open jumpers from downtown in exchange for tougher two-pointers. It makes no sense math-wise and it really hurts them offensively.
To keep pace with Milwaukee, they are going to need to ramp up the three-point attempts. There are guys on this roster who can take and more importantly, make them. Players such as Coby White are going to need to be absolute marksmen from deep.
Given most (if not all) of Chicago’s firepower comes from their starters, a spark from their reserves would be welcomed. Getting solid minutes from the likes of White, Ayo Dosunmu, Javonte Green, Derrick Jones Jr., and even Tristan Thompson would be gigantic for the Bulls.
Both teams have two of the lower scoring reserve units in the league at 26.7 for the Bulls and 27.8 points from the Bucks. While the starters on either side will play heavy minutes, a spark from someone off the bench could be pivotal.
Schedule at a glance
Game One: Sunday April 17th, 5:30 PM CT, NBC Sports Chicago/TNT
Game Two: Wednesday April 20th, 8:30 PM CT, NBC Sports Chicago/TNT
Game Three: Friday April 22nd, 7:30 PM CT, NBC Sports Chicago/ABC
Game Four: Sunday April 24th, 12:00 PM CT, ABC
Game Five: Wednesday April 27th, TBD, TBD
Game Six: Friday April 29th, TBD, TBD
Game Seven: Sunday May 1st, TDB, TBD
As you can see game one will be played tomorrow evening with a two day break before Game 2 and then it’s a one day break all the way until Game Four. If the series is pushed to the limit, the final game will be played on the first day of May.
Milwaukee is a really tough matchup for the Bulls on both ends of the court and the way Chicago ended their season should give nobody any room for optimism. Much has been said about the Bulls dreadful record against the top four teams in the East and that should be a factor here. While the playoffs are a different animal, the Bucks are a squad which has proven that they can turn it up in the postseason. This will be the first playoff series for many of the Bulls players. Milwaukee has the players to throw at DeRozan and LaVine while also being able to attack the weak points of Chicago’s defense, which as faltered as of late.
It’s a tough uphill climb for the Bulls as they will have to scratch and claw their way to just make this a competitive series. I think they do nab a win in one of the two home playoff games they have next week before Milwaukee finishes the series off in five games.
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