Your Chicago Bulls roared back from a brutal first quarter to keep things interesting and Nikola Vucevic was surprisingly aggressive late, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in tonight’s opening game of the two Central Division clubs’ quarterfinals matchup. The Bucks won a low-scoring affair at home, 93-86, as Zach LaVine played in his first-ever postseason game.
Chicago had a rough start, making its first playoff appearance since the “Three Alphas” suffered a 2017 first-round loss to the Celtics. The Bucks kicked off the proceedings with a 9-0 run in first 1:33 of game action, capped off with a 27-foot Giannis three! Billy Donovan was forced to burn a timeout to calm Chicago down.
As Rob Schaefer of NBC Sports Chicago posited earlier this week, the Bulls relegated rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu to the bench, opting for a larger starting five of Alex Caruso, Zach, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, and Vucevic.
DeRozan missed some free throws and the Bulls missed some jumpers early. Vucevic was the first to score for Chicago with a triple. DeRozan nailed a rare triple next.
In the frame, Giannis Antetokounmpo handily broke through to the interior for a variety of pretty easy finishes around the rim. He finished the quarter with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting from the floor, along with nine rebounds and two assists. Antetokounmpo is now 14-0 against the Bulls across his past 14 healthy meetings with Chicago.
Giannis throws it down pic.twitter.com/woSfWy9zOp— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 17, 2022
The Bulls were doing their darnedest to stay alert and aggressive early on defense, looking to trap and rotate to cover the Bucks’ shooters early. It didn’t help much at first, and the Bucks led 34-21 after the first quarter. Their advantage ballooned to as much as 16 points in the quarter. Chicago connected on just 8-of-24 field goal attempts in the first frame.
Early on, the Bulls’ issues defending the Bucks’ size were glaring. Brook Lopez scored an easy 11 points in the period against a helpless Bulls front line. The Bucks handily scored 18 interior points against Chicago in the frame.
DeRozan started landing some pull-up jumpers in the second quarter. In a clever move, Donovan opted to bring the more mobile and athletic (and significantly shorter) Derrick Jones Jr. in off the bench instead of Tristan Thompson as a reserve big man to throw at Antetokounmpo. Jones occasionally played alongside the 6’4” Javonte Green at power forward.
Williams showed flashes of promise in the second period, driving to the lane and drawing contact in the kind of aggressive action we need to see a whole lot more of for Chicago to succeed. Unfortunately, that would be the only field goal attempt he would make, after taking just three shots from the floor across 23:12 minutes.
Chicago cut the lead to just five with a 7-0 run midway through the frame, thanks to a pair of trips to the line from LaVine and DeRozan and this 26-foot Zach trey:
Zach is pure from deep.@NBCSChicago | @ZachLaVine pic.twitter.com/ES8w0eDk1v— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) April 17, 2022
The Bulls staged quite the turnaround in the second quarter. Vucevic even played respectable defense against Lopez near the bucket at one point! Chicago’s swarming defensive strategy helped them chip away at the Bucks’ edge, and the club would go on to outscore Milwaukee 22-17 in the period.
The Bucks still headed into the halftime break up 51-43. Antetokounmpo and Lopez did a lot of that damage, combining for 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting, along with 13 rebounds, in the half. Giannis himself scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting over the course of the first two quarters, while chipping in 11 boards. The rest of the Bucks beyond that Greek Freak/Lopez tandem shot just 9-of-30 in the first half, scoring 23 points and grabbing 16 boards.
On the Bulls side, their three priciest players all got into double figures by the break. DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic combined to score 33 points, albeit on an inefficient 10-of-31 field goal conversion rate. The Bulls overall connected on just 31.7 FG% of their field goals in the first half and made a mere 3-17 of their long range looks.
Happily, Chicago got to the line frequently in the half, nailing 14 of 16 looks at the charity stripe, a start edge over the Bucks’ 5-of-10 start from the free throw line.
Nikola Vucevic opened the third quarter with a nice midrange jumper, and enjoyed a stellar run in the period. Giannis began settling for jumpers, while Chicago started executing a series of effective drive-and-kick plays to open up their offense. The Bulls cut the Bucks’ lead to just three points early on in the proceedings.
That said, Chicago’s swarming defense, though often effective in keeping the Bucks out of the paint, couldn’t always contain Milwaukee’s deft passing, which occasionally shook the Bulls out of their shoes:
Bulls have gotten beat here on a few of these, not being able to get to that third pass in rotation. Giannis skips the first and Bulls just have no one there pic.twitter.com/QTKG11vWJz— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) April 18, 2022
Chicago kept the pressure up on Milwaukee in the third quarter, staying within close range of the Bucks. Led by Vucevic and Coby White, the Bulls capitalized when Giannis sat to go on a 13-0 tear to earn their first lead of the game in the middle of the period at 69-64, thanks to back-to-back plays from Coby White. Here’s the Coby triple that gave Chicago its first lead of the night:
Coby for the lead!!! pic.twitter.com/dK6mTXzmhw— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) April 18, 2022
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer brought Antetokounmpo back into the game to stop the bleeding, and Milwaukee used the size and athleticism advantage of the 6’10” Bobby Portis and 6’11” Antetokounmpo to quickly regain the lead on a 10-2 run of their own, finishing the quarter up 74-71.
Here’s the Giannis bucket that helped the Bucks close out the third period on top:
An acrobatic bucket for Giannis. pic.twitter.com/gqX6dEFEqg— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 18, 2022
The Bulls’ offense shrank and slowed down to create a series of deliberate plays in the frame, and the Bulls ultimately outscored Milwaukee 28-23 in the third quarter.
Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday had a terrible first three quarters for the Bucks, but Milwaukee’s bigs saved the team with their aggressive scoring and rebounding. Bobby Portis drew a foul out of Zach LaVine, his fifth, with 10:38 remaining in regulation. Donovan opted to keep LaVine in (in part so that DeRozan could rest) at the top of the frame, instead removing Tristan Thompson in favor of Vucevic.
Donovan wisely had a quickly whistle for Thompson all night. The much-ballyhooed waiver wire big man addition logged just 7:25 of game action tonight, as Donovan opted for quickness and effort over size and experience.
Chicago’s swarming paint presence helped force the Bucks into jumpers throughout much of the game’s final period. Vucevic helped Chicago temporarily retake the lead, 78-77, with a slick turnaround jumper. After collecting five fouls of his own, Giannis Antetokounmpo headed to the bench in the middle of the fourth. This time, though, the Bucks instantly went on an 8-0 run sans their MVP, buoyed by the scoring of Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez.
The Bucks outscored the Bulls 19-15 in a frustratingly low-scoring final frame.
Lopez, Holiday and Giannis did just enough late to keep Milwaukee ahead as the game concluded, though Budenholzer was overly cautious about Antetokounmpo’s fouls, and frequently subbed him in and out late during breaks in play to avoid him fouling out. Caruso, Williams and DeRozan helped the Bulls stay in the contest late.
Holiday and Lopez worked their two-man game to perfection with a nifty pick-and-pop play that put the Bucks up three, 89-86, with 1:24 left (Lopez missed his free throw after Patrick Williams fouled him on this five-foot floater).
Ring 'em up!! pic.twitter.com/EmeKEohbh9— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) April 18, 2022
A few possessions later, Vucevic botched what should have been an easy putback layup with just 52.7 seconds remaining in the game and the Bucks still leading 89-86.
Thanks to a sloppy Wesley Matthews turnover on the next possession, Chicago had a chance to tie with 38.5 seconds remaining in the game. All looked copacetic on the western front at first, as the Bulls continued the deliberate pace while bringing the ball up. Zach LaVine foolishly heaved a tough 30-foot triple attempt with plenty of time remaining on the shot clock (a smidge under 15 seconds), and the Bucks secured the subsequent rebound.
About that rebound — another Bucks player dangerously fouled Alex Caruso tonight. This time, it was Bobby Portis elbowing AC Fresh in the eye as the crazy-eyed ex-Bull grabbed a crucial rebound with 25.7 left in regulation. To stop the clock, Caruso (still smarting from the Portis hit) fouled Holiday with 15.3 seconds remaining. The Bucks point guard essentially iced the game when he nailed both his free throws. DeRozan and LaVine missed two contested jumpers sandwiched around two made Middleton free throws. Milwaukee did just enough to seal the 93-86 victory.
As a savvy two-way veteran on a minimum contract, swingman Wesley Matthews has become a reliable starter in his second stint with Milwaukee, getting the nod over Pat Connaughton and everybody’s least favorite Buck Grayson Allen. The 35-year-old Matthews had a modest but impactful night against the Bulls (six points on 2-of-3 shooting, all from three-point range, along with five rebounds, an assist, and a +9 plus-minus in 26:51), but represents the kind of steadying veteran presence on the wing that the Bulls should look to court in the 2022 offseason as a reserve.
Both teams had a rough night on offense. The Bucks shot just 40.5% from the floor and 26.3% from deep, while the Bulls connected on an even-worse 32.3% from the field and 18.9% from three-point land.
The Bulls’ gritty defensive performance held the Bucks’ normally high-flying offense to under 100 points, and could suggest a blueprint to at least keeping the games in this series closer than fans (and Bulls bloggers) might have predicted. Chicago’s swarming coverage yielded 21 turnovers for the Bucks (compared to just 11 for the Bulls), but the Bulls failed to convert many of those extra possessions, besting Milwaukee just 15-14 in points scored off turnovers.
As we feared, the Bucks totally outclassed Chicago inside, outscoring the Bulls 42-32 in the paint, and grabbing 47 rebounds compared to 37 for the Bulls.
DeRozan had a terribly inefficient night, scoring 18 points on just 6-of-25 shooting from the field in 42:56. He also chipped in eight rebounds, six assists, and three steals. To be fair, refs didn’t give him a ton of credit when it came to drawing contact. He went to the foul line just six times. Vucevic scored a team-high 24 points on 9-of-27 shooting, and at least was aggressive in looking for his shots throughout the night. Unfortunately, he struggled to buy a bucket from deep, going just 2-of-10. At least he did his part on the boards, securing 17 rebounds. The 6’10” two-time All-Star also contributed three assists and a block. LaVine had some fun moments, but ultimately finished with a paltry 6-of-19 shooting to finish with 18 points in his playoff debut. He also added 10 rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.
Among the rest of the Bulls, only Coby White scored in double digits grabbing 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting in a very active 22:52 of game time off the bench. Donovan rode the hot hand tonight, limiting Dosunmu to just 8:44 of action among his two main reserve guards.
For the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 27 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. Brook Lopez added 18 points, five boards and two blocks of his own. Holiday had 15 points (albeit on a lackluster 6-of-16 shooting from the floor), six rebounds and six assists. Portis added 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting along with a stellar 12 rebounds in just 23:22. Middleton had a horrible night on offense, scoring just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting (including 1-of-7 from deep).
Chicago needs to steal the next game in Milwaukee, scheduled for Wednesday night, to have a prayer in this series against the reigning champs. After tonight, that actually feels conceivable.