Bulls clinch playoff berth for first time in five years despite loss to Bucks

It was a night to celebrate in the United Center, a shining moment, if you will. There weren't the confetti carpeting for locker room baseball hats, but the Bulls Tuesday did cap off the season they promised in clinching their first playoff spot in five years.

"I'm happy for our guys, I'm happy for the organization," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "You want to be playing during that time of year. I'm excited for the guys because they've worked hard and it's been a really good group considering this is really the first time they've all played with one another. I'm happy they'll get a chance to experience that, for the organization, the history and championships, and what the organization has done for a long period of time to be able to get back to the playoffs."

But the Milwaukee Bucks in dominating virtually the entire...

Nah, nah, forget about that.

"It's always an honor to be able to get into the playoffs," added DeMar DeRozan. "The franchise hasn't been here in five years. So for us to make the jump that we made to be in the position to be able to compete in the playoffs, it's definitely great. It will give us an opportunity to further our season and play for something bigger. As long as the opportunity is there, it's a chance. It would be different if we weren't making it and we were talking about next year. For us to still have a chance and have an opportunity to pick it up and use these next couple games to be going in the right direction at the right time, that's what it's all about. Anything can happen. You always kind of look at it from the positive point of view."

But in trailing by double digits for virtually the...

No, wait, wait, listen to Vooch.

"It's great for all of us, happy to have done it," said Nikola Vucevic. "That was our goal from the beginning of the year to get there and after that see what happens. It would have been nicer to happen on a better night, but for sure it means a lot for the players, the organization, the city. So hopefully we can continue to do well. We would prefer it shows through results where we are playing better and winning games, but it just takes time."

So it wasn't a celebratory evening until the score was posted that the Cleveland Cavaliers lost. That meant both the Bulls, now sixth in the Eastern Conference at 45-34, and the Toronto Raptors clinched the last two playoff positions in the Eastern Conference. The top six teams will get a week off as the NBA adds two playoff teams in the play-in tournament, which in the East involves Cleveland, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Charlotte.

The Bulls can no longer get a home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, so there's little meaning for the final three games, starting Wednesday in the United Center against Boston. The Bulls are home Friday against Charlotte and close the regular season Sunday in Minnesota.

Their first-round opponent likely won't be known until the last day of the season with Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia tied for second through fourth and Toronto a game ahead of the Bulls. Though the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Toronto.

But it sounded like the Bulls were going to seriously play out the last three games without much rest both because of the week off before the start of the playoffs and the danger of losing continuity, though the Bulls hasn't been particularly good since the All-Star break in losing 13 of 20.

Tap to watch postgame reaction from Billy Donovan after a bittersweet night where Chicago clinches a playoff berth despite losing to the Bucks on Tuesday night.

"The big thing is the guys' health," agreed Donovan. "But the other thing is I don't want to miss out - and I think AK (chief basketball executive Arturas Karnisovas) would be in alignment with this, too - where you sit there and say, ‘OK, were going to sit these guys out and not play them and not necessarily worry about growing and getting better.' There's going to be another week layoff before you play again and (we're) not sure who you're going to play. There's a different rhythm to that. I do think there's a level of opportunity because I think we have some inexperienced guys in these situations. We'll be taking inventory of how they are feeling and what they need, (but) we're not necessarily changing where we're at (in the standings)."

Which sounds good to DeMar DeRozan.

"I don't need no time off," said DeRozan, who takes among the least for NBA stars. "It takes that one game for us to be going completely in the right direction. There's nothing like having a rhythm while playing. For me, I hate sitting too long. I love playing. I'm going to continue to play this thing out, continue to find a better rhythm for us team wise on both ends and hopefully we're going in the right direction come next week. It's going to come. It sucks right now over the last couple of weeks, but I have the utmost confidence in the guys."

OK, the game. I've stalled enough, but this was one to look away, nothing to see here. Well, not much.

DeRozan in the nationally televised ESPN game made his last bid for MVP consideration with 40 points through three quarters that continued to provide some hope and keep ESPN from switching to the G-league playoff game early.

DeRozan finished with 40 points through three quarters in the loss to Milwaukee.

DeRozan finished the game with 40 points after finally getting a rest in playing 33 of the first 36 minutes. Without him, and with Zach LaVine sitting out with his sore knee issues, the Bulls couldn't do much. DeRozan got a brief fourth quarter cameo, missed one shot and then Donovan emptied the bench with about five minutes left.

The Bulls never were close in this one against a Bucks team that didn't even seem to be playing too hard. Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 18 points, didn't attempt a shot in the first quarter when the Bucks took a 12-point lead after nine minutes, and had three shots by halftime in a 58-46 Bucks edge.

The defending champs looked confident enough with seven players scoring in double figures led by Brook Lopez with 28 points, repeatedly rolling down the lane for scores as the Bucks continued to abuse the Bulls in pick and roll plays.

With LaVine out, Patrick Williams got his first start in his return from surgery and had 18 points and shot confidently. Coby White broke out of his three-point shooting woes with 13 points. But no other Bulls player scored in double figures with Vucevic an unproductive three of 19 shooting.

And then he was one of the biggest stories, less for his shooting, which he and Donovan agreed was just an aberration, than a technical/flagrant foul assessed on what looked like a hard foul/cheap shot on Bucks villain (to the Bulls) Grayson Allen.

It came with about 10 minutes left in the game and the Bulls trailing by 15 points. And it generated about the only enthusiasm for the patrons other than an occasional DeRozan MVP chant.

Allen, of course, took out Alex Caruso for about six weeks with a flagrant foul in January. Derrick Jones returned a hard foul for a flagrant when the teams played last month. And then the Bucks bench erupted when it seemed Vucevic continued the pay back.

Or did he. I don't believe he did even if Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said it crossed the line. C'mon, the guy did post game interviews in three languages. And he reads. Books.

"I just saw somebody drive and I saw that I was late," Vucevic related. "I got pushed a little bit (by Lopez, who was called for an offensive foul before Vucevic's foul). I was trying to swipe at the ball. It looked worse in the moment, but when you look at the replay it wasn't even that bad. My intention wasn't to pay back or anything. I talked to him (Allen) right afterward; no big deal. Their bench reacted, but right after when they saw the replay a couple of their players came to me and they saw I wasn't trying to hard foul him on purpose; it just happened the way the play developed. I don't understand why I got a tech for it. So I hope I get my money back for that tech."

Some fans calling for peace overseas were, nevertheless, disappointed.

It was a disappointing effort for the Bulls, though really no surprise with the Bucks at full strength and LaVine out. Caruso played 22 minutes and was scoreless. And if anyone probably could use some time off it's him with his back issues. Plus, the way he plays it would seem he only would make it worse. In the last five games, he's two of 15 on threes and averaging about two and a half points. With Caruso starting with reluctant offensive players like Ayo Dosunmu and Williams, the Bulls fell behind early and only thanks to some remarkable shooting runs by DeRozan were able to stay within the broadcasters' it's-still-a-game distance. Though the Bulls did fall behind by 21 points early in the third quarter.

"You want to be going into this time of year playing well," Donovan acknowledged. "I don't think that we necessarily haven't played well. I think we have shot really poorly. We have not been able to consistently shoot well enough for a period of time, but I think our effort tonight was really good and in general it's been good. I'm hopeful these experiences will harden us and we'll get tougher and more resilient and more battle tested going through some of the stuff we've gone through because since the All-Star break it's been a challenging schedule with the quality of teams we've played. I do think it's good because it's shining a light on what you have to do and where you have to get to; I think that's a positive."

Donovan did again give a look to Derrick Jones Jr., who made a pair of threes and could be more of a factor in the playoffs. It's difficult to compete with teams like the veteran Bucks and Heat starting basically two rookies in Dosunmu and Williams.

And it looks like no Lonzo Ball.

Lonzo Ball watches from the Bulls bench during Chicago's game against Milwaukee on Tuesday night.

Donovan prior to the game said Ball even after this 10-day resting/reassessment period is still feeling knee discomfort. Which hardly bodes well for a playoff return.

"It's disappointing from the standpoint that you were hoping that the time that he had off could help him maybe propel going forward and do a little bit more, but that certainly hasn't been the case," Donovan said of Ball. LaVine is considered day to day. Donovan said the team and Ball's representatives will meet in the next few days.

And so even if Tuesday wasn't a game to celebrate, it was a night to appreciate because the Bulls achieved goal No. 1 for this season.

And not being the Lakers. Couldn't resist.

"We are a new team, a new group, a lot of young guys, and when we play some of those better teams that have been together for awhile and have that experience and have played in big games and big series, sometimes it shows we lack some of those important things, like paying attention to detail," said Vucevic. "So just part of a learning process. I think our main issues are the consistency of doing all those things and hopefully we can use these next three games to take a step forward."