After a surprisingly close Game 1 rock fight on Sunday, you can reason that it was an opportunity the Bulls could not let slip away, but also could recalibrate the Bulls’ chances in this series.
Though Chicago was badly outplayed in a miserable 34-21 first quarter, the club effectively gummed up the works throughout the rest of the game, putting forth a valiant defensive effort that took most of Milwaukee’s players out of rhythm. That the Bucks only scored 93 points is fairly impressive, as the team averaged 115.5 points a night during the regular season, good for third-best in the league. Chicago created 21 turnovers and notched 10 steals, and the Bucks made just 40.5% of their field goal attempts.
Granted, the Bulls only made 32.3% of their looks from the floor, but we’ll deal with the Chicago offense in a bit. Is it possible that the Bulls can carry over some of their defensive success towards the rest of this series?
Alex Caruso needs to be in pre-injury form
Now-starting point guard Alex Caruso actually looked like pre-wrist fracture Alex Caruso during much of Game 1’s second half, offering up intrepid, blanketing coverage on the Bucks’ perimeter players, and even a couple times on Giannis, with his signature brand of aggression.
Alex Caruso's defense is so damn good pic.twitter.com/2QAoTgVgmS— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 18, 2022
“Our physicality was really good,” Caruso reflected after yesterday’s team practice, per Rob Schaefer of NBC Sports Chicago. “Our willingness to compete on every possession, to have a next-play mentality, to not worry about makes and misses. Being impartial to the noise and just do your job.”
Caruso, still battling back spasms, didn’t do a whole heck of a lot on offense, finishing an underwhelming 3-of-7 from the field for seven points including a couple wide-open three pointers. Donovan indicated in comments made ahead of the game that he would do his darnedest to unofficially limit Caruso’s minutes to the mid-30 minutes range or below, but that should still be enough time for him to make an impact. He helps in baiting Giannis into fouls, whatever it takes to get him off the court.
Need midseason DeMar (not playoff DeMar)
The 32-year-old All-Star himself admitted that he was disappointed in his paltry shooting in Game 1. He went just 6-of-25 from the field to net a total of 18 points.
A lot of the 6’6” wing’s patented midrange jumpers just weren’t falling on Sunday. Whether DeRozan’s whiffs were a result of fatigue, the Bucks’ paint-defense, luck, or some combination is unclear.
Ultimately, for a guy who ended the season averaging 27.9 points on .504/.352/.877 shooting splits, such an efficiency nightmare in the playoffs can’t happen again. Deebo needs to step up, flash some of the midseason midrange scoring prowess that made him a stealth MVP candidate. It’ll help the team and his own career story as a disappointing playoff performer.
In an encouraging sign, however, DeRozan was active defensively, grabbing three steals and even drawing a charge. Not to say he was particularly great, but darn it he tried, and he used his athleticism and size to his advantage.
Need Vuc to keep shooting, but...make more
The Bucks base defense packs the paint and allows open threes. The Bulls offense gets those kinds of looks for Nikola Vucevic.
Everything played to script, except no twist ending where Vuc would actually make shots:
Vuc’s 3-point shooting has gone in the tank this season, including only 32.6% on NBA dot com’s ‘Wide Open’ tracked attempts. But underdogs need flukey things to go right, and Vuc rediscovering his shooting form for a few games would qualify.
Not only would the three points be useful, potentially it could get the Bucks to extend their bigs out more and clear space for DeRozan and LaVine to attack.
The Bulls bench needs to score
Chicago’s reserves, while a fun story in the regular season, have certainly fallen off. They showcased plenty of swarming and switching on defense during the Game 1 defeat, but almost no one could buy a bucket.
Billy Donovan, clearly in a mode trying to see what sticks, went with a five-deep bench rotation. Coby White (23 minutes of run) and Javonte Green (17 minutes) were the minutes leaders off the pine. Derrick Jones Jr., who got run as both a four and his regular season small-ball five role, played nearly 10 minutes, but Donovan also tried Tristan Thompson at center (including once alongside Jones). Ayo Dosunmu received two significant stints of playing time as well.
White did about everything we could expect him to do, with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including 2-of-6 from deep. He did go cold from long range at the top of the fourth, but then again, so did every Bull.
Everyone else just didn’t do much of anything, combining for a paltry 2 points on 1-5 shooting.
In principle, Green and Dosunmu should consider themselves threats to nail open jumpers and attack late close-outs. They did so in the regular season, albeit on low volume. But this was zero volume so ‘low’ would be an improvement.
The bench also can help with this critical element: keep taking advantage of the Giannis-less minutes. Giannis got into foul trouble on Sunday, and the Bucks were -19 in their 14 minutes played without Giannis.
Patrick Williams needs to seize opportunities
The Bulls can’t reasonably assume that Williams, who is still 20 years old and missed a ton of regular season action, will magically grow into his promise as a two-way force. But he needs to be more of a threat and take some of the shots the Bucks are giving.
Williams isn't going to get an opportunity to own the ball the way he did vs. Minnesota, but shots are there for him -- if he wants them.— Mark K (@mkhoops) April 17, 2022
He can't turn down this look from three.
Shooting an open jumper was a much better option than the one DeRozan manufactured. pic.twitter.com/Now462YWFj
Sadly, Williams reverted to timidity in his first-ever playoff game Sunday. He scored just five points and went just 1-of-3 from the field in 23 minutes of game time. The two misses were three-point looks. Williams must look to score more in this series than he did in Game 1, especially when it comes to finishing. The athleticism and finishing touch are there, but not consistently.
Williams had some nice moments defensively, and Billy Donovan was right to line him up against Giannis among the starters rather than giving assignment to the much-smaller Javonte Green or Alex Caruso, but Williams needs to contribute on the offensive end to justify that deployment.
Can the Bulls win a game, maybe even two, in this series? If they keep playing like this on defense, then yes, absolutely. Then to actually have a chance of advancing, the offense needs to be a whole lot better too.