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How the Bulls can win Game 6 in Milwaukee

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By Sam Smith | 4.30.2015 | 8:38 a.m. CT

It’s not quite time yet for the Bulls to be in the collapse discussion with the ’69 Cubs, the’03 Cubs and pretty much every Bears season.

“Obviously, we want to end the series,” Jimmy Butler said after practice Wednesday. “We can’t sit here and keep saying that. We’ve got to make it happen. I want this to be our last game (in this series). No disrespect to the (panicked and worried) fans or you all (media), but I think we have to do it. Obviously, we don’t want to make history in the wrong way. But I think we’ll be fine. If we take it one game at a time, don’t look forward to the next series or don’t look forward to a Game 7, we’re fine.’’

That judgment will mostly be made by others Thursday when the Bulls are in Milwaukee for Game 6 of this first round playoff series. The Bulls now lead 3-2 after having led 3-0. No team in NBA history ever has lost a playoff series after leading 3-0. Only five No. 1 seeds have lost to No. 8 seeds, and the Bulls were one of those. But so were the Spurs just four years ago. And the mighty New York Yankees in baseball lost a series after leading 3-0.

It’s not exactly Cy Young’s 511 wins or Wilt’s 100 points.

Someone’s going to do it sometime, and the Bucks don’t exactly look overwhelmed in this playoff series.

Actually, it’s been Bulls players who have talked about the overwhelming defensive pressure against them, committing 93 turnovers to 61 for Milwaukee, averaging 97 points on 42.1 percent shooting, well below their season averages, their free throw shooting also well off and with getting eight shots blocked per game, also above their season average.

“It’s been up and down all year,” agreed Joakim Noah. “But you know what, it’s about this Game 6. We’ve got to live in the moment, stay focused. It’s not about the past, it’s not about what happened. Play our best game of the season; that’s going to be tomorrow.”

The Bulls should win this series.

They are expected to as No. 3 seed against No. 6, with 50 wins, nine more than a Milwaukee team they were 3-1 against in the regular season. And the Bulls were maybe 20 seconds away from a sweep in Game 4 with Derrick Rose with the ball in a tie game. Turnover, great inbounds play for a winning layup and then onto Chicago and a Game 5 stinker for the Bulls, 34.4 percent shooting with seven for 30 in the fourth quarter, seven missed free throws (none for Milwaukee), 18 percent from three. And an energized Bucks team, blocking shots, making steals, outhustling and out defending the more experienced Bulls.

And seemingly having more fun doing so.

I’m not much into intangibles, but this Bulls team has looked in this series more like going to work than playing a game. Yes, it is their jobs, but it’s also a game.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence Wednesday when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was asked the mood of the team.

“Workmanlike,” Thibodeau said. “Come in. Prepare. Get ourselves ready.”

That didn’t sound like much fun.

It’s not so much it’s supposed to be all laughs as this is the most serious time of the season. But the Bulls teams that have had success have demonstrated a joie de vivre, a joy and enthusiasm for the game that seemed to transcend their talent and enable them to overcome so many of the obstacles of recent years. This season they are healthy; the Bulls Wednesday released the injury report with “none;” it is believed the first time since 1997. And the breaks seem to be going the Bulls way this time, the favored Cavaliers now without the injured Kevin Love likely for the playoffs and fellow starter J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games of the of the conference semifinals.

When Butler following Noah Wednesday walked across the Advocate Center floor to speak with reporters, he was asked first about the mood of the team.

“We’re all in good moods, good spirits,” he said.

Any frustration?

“Nope,” he said. “None.’’

Media cannot discern state of mind under the best of circumstances and certainly not in brief post practice interviews. Plus, no one is trained for that despite much amateur experience. Bulls players did seem to be joking around in shooting games while the interviews progressed. And when Butler went a little long in his comments, one player playfully took the P.R. department role and yelled from the weight room across the floor, “Last question!”

Though the big question is whether the Bulls can get this one Thursday.

Forget looking ahead to a potential series starting in Cleveland Monday. The Bulls come in Thursday on two days’ rest. During the regular season on two days’ rest, Rose shot his best, 46 percent. Butler also shot his best on two days’ rest, 49.2 percent. The two Bulls guards have been the workers in this series. Butler leads all NBA players in post season playing time at 44.2 minutes per game. The surprise is Rose just a few weeks into his return from missing six weeks with surgery is 18th, averaging 39 minutes. But in the last four games, Rose is averaging 42 minutes and Butler more than 46 minutes. That they were a combined five for 26 in the second half of Game 5 was perhaps no surprise.

It is true starters play more in the playoffs. There are a dozen players averaging at least 40 minutes per game compared to none in the regular season. Thibodeau also made it clear he’s not changing. When asked about his two guards’ playing time Wednesday, he answered sharply: “It is the playoffs.”

Still, it is a players’ game and a game to win by the players. If the Bulls lose it will be because they weren’t good enough. That’s the difference with a seven-game series. It reveals who you are as a team. You can’t be beaten by a lucky shot or hot team.

But the Bulls will have to be better to win this series with Game 6 looking more important. You don’t want to have the pressure of a Game 7—even at home—and making notorious history Saturday on short rest. Not the way those Bucks’ kids have been flying around the court. What a season it would be for them to win a playoff series even if LeBron refuses to learn their names.

The first thing the Bulls have to do is try to score.

OK, they’ve tried, but they’ve made it so difficult. They need to push the ball more, not allow the Bucks’ defense to set. Score some easy baskets, which fair or not also generally helps your defense. Players in an offensive flow tend to be more engaged on defense rather than slogging back to set up. Thibodeau has talked about this basically every day, but the Bulls never much do it. The Bucks have outscored the Bulls in fast break points in this series 68-49.

“We’ve got to get the ball up the floor quickly,” Thibodeau said after practice Tuesday. “Even when we get into the half court, keep playing fast. Don’t slow down. We have to play with high energy. I thought the start of the game we did that. But you have to do it for 48 minutes. You can’t slow down.

“You get into the playoffs, you’ve got to get the ball up the floor quick and make quick decisions and you’ve got to be able to get to your second and third options,” Thibodeau said after practice Wednesday.


They want to play in the half court?

I think part of the issue is Thibodeau calling too many plays; it’s not always necessarily a bad thing, but not great for this series with a team that double teams and traps and moves into so much help on defense. It’s a philosophical issue for me. I feel most coaches call too many plays and strangle the game. It’s often the coaches who haven’t been pro players. Thibodeau probably calls more than any coach in the NBA. Phil Jackson rarely called plays because of the triple post offense. Steve Kerr with the Warriors, who have probably the best ball movement in the league, sits and doesn’t call many plays. Bucks coach Jason Kidd, also a former point guard, calls few plays. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has obviously been successful and calls a lot of plays. So you certainly can win that way. And Thibodeau generally does well with calls out of time outs.

But it hasn’t worked well in this series.

Against a team that traps and switches like the Bucks, you are in trouble if you run the clock down for your shots. They’ll force late shot clock attempts, which the Bulls have done too frequently. They generally are bad shots. Perhaps off made shots you can make more set calls. But off every miss the ball should be pushed or thrown ahead: Hit the wing and then even have Rose make a cut off the ball as he’ll take defense with him. With all the turnovers the Bulls make, averaging 18.6 in this series, it’s hard to believe it could be worse with a faster game. They appear to make those turnovers because they appear to be trying to force the ball into set plays against the sort of aggressive defense basically no one else in the East plays.

“I think that’s what teams try and do against us as well,” Butler said about faster play. “I think we’re two really good defensive teams. We haven’t been showing it as of late, they have.”

Then there are the starts to games.

Game 1: Bulls trail 8-2

Game 2: Bulls trail 13-6

Game 3: Bulls lead 10-4.

Game 4: Bulls trail 8-3

Game 5: Bulls trail 9-0

Is their defense that good?

“Yes, we continue to say that,” Butler said about being more aggressive to start. “We continue to not do it. We continue to lose, so we better fix it quickly, as in fix it tomorrow. Play some defense, score some baskets. If we can outscore them in every quarter, I’m pretty sure the numbers say we’ll win the game.’’

Ah, the formula for victory.

Of course, the Bulls do lead the series 3-2.

Then there are the matchups. Thibodeau is a matchup coach and over the years has done well that way in the playoffs with attacking weak links in opponents’ defenses. His emphasis is defense first, which is why he said he only played Aaron Brooks 5:33 in Game 5. But the Bulls need to get more from their reserves, who haven’t played that much. Plus, Brooks was very good, aggressive and feisty in that time. He may be the toughest guy on the team despite his size. The Bulls need more of his attitude.

The Bucks have taken advantage of going small, especially in the second half, with players like Jared Dudley taking on Bulls big guys. The Bulls didn’t react to it well initially as it’s not something they’ve seen very much. Taj Gibson did have a good first half run powering in the paint against Dudley in Game 5. But Gibson only played eight minutes in the second half. The Bulls need to get the Bucks into those mismatches, and then move the ball if they help. Make the defense commit, and then when you move the ball it produces an opening or the next pass does. Though the Bulls have been hesitant with getting into offense too late and then not having the time for the extra passes.

“They’re very athletic,” acknowledged Thibodeau. “They’re quick. You can’t hold onto it. You have to make the right read. If it’s a long closeout and they’re flying at you, go by. If they’re closing short, shoot. They have good size. If they’re coming to block, move on penetration, hit the open man. You’re getting by one, that means another one is picking you up. When that guy comes, you have to hit the open man. When you’re not making the threes and you’re not making layups, the ball has to move. It’s going to move better when you’re making shots. When they collapse on the penetration, we have to hit the open man. We’ve got to make shots. That helps.”

Thibodeau doesn’t make dramatic changes, though it’s clearly been a struggle for Joakim Noah, especially in those starts, though he played his best in Game 5.

“He’s fine,” Thibodeau said of Noah. “It’s been a little up and down this year. I thought he had a really good practice today. I believe he’ll play well tomorrow. His rebounding has been terrific. The offense is going to come and go in terms of the shooting. But the playmaking is there. I just want him to play to his strengths and play with that great intensity and effort. That’s what makes him go. That’s what makes us go. Going into the season, we knew it was going to be choppy. I just want him to do the things he does well. His game is a little unorthodox, hard to measure. But when he’s making those great multiple effort hustle plays, there’s nobody that can do that like him. So that’s what we really need from him.”

Though you wonder having to chase perimeter shooting power forwards teamed with Pau Gasol whether Noah would be better off to join with the second unit—though he does play with them to start the second quarter and fourth quarters—and provide them with more life and stability. Perhaps give Gibson a larger role with the starters as he’s always played better and more lively starting.

Though Mike Dunleavy is up and down defensively, he moves the ball better than anyone on the team. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and just four minutes after half time. He has been the team’s best shooter, but got just three shots in Game 5. He facilitates spacing and ball movement as well as anyone. Kirk Hinrich surely can give you five or eight minutes to harass players like O.J. Mayo, who have been feasting on the Bulls. Maybe some hard cuts off the ball for everyone rather than dropping it in and watching guys work with the ball.

There’s plenty of room for improvement and much to try. Though being enthusiastic about it would be a nice start. Oh, yeah. Making some shots, too, as Thibodeau suggests. Two to get one.