Bulls eliminated by Bucks in five games, hold heads high going into offseason

Despite an early playoff exit, the Bulls finish the season with plenty of positives to build on
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
FanDuel

Body

Turn out the lights, the party's over
They say that all good things must end
Willie Nelson

The 2021-22 NBA season really was a heck of a party for the Bulls, one that ended Wednesday night in Milwaukee with a 116-100 loss to the Bucks in the first-round playoff series. But as badly as it ended with Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso sitting out amidst many other what ifs and could have beens, it really was a good thing, a very good thing.

"We started off really well, which kind of nobody expected us to, even us," admitted Nikola Vucevic, who closed out with 19 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, averaging 19.4 points and 12.4 rebounds in the series. "We didn't expect to start off (the season) that well. And for whatever reason toward the end we had a poor finish. That put us in a tough situation going into the playoffs having to play the world champs. The positive is we did have a good record and we did make the playoffs; there were some good positives, really good moments."

Admit it, a year ago coming off a 31-41 finish and out of even the play-in tournament, you would have been giddy about 46-36 for the Bulls and a first-round playoff series even if it were just one win. If you wagered the Bulls a year ago on the up side, you'd be very wealthy now. Perhaps as much as the ebullience as a Bulls fan you might have experienced this season with your team in first place—that's right, we're No. 1!—for 47 days of the season and still first in the conference coming out of the All-Star break.

You got to chant MVP for one of your guys for the first time in a decade, and it was justified. Two of your guys were on the All-Star team. Records were being set and comparisons were made to marks established by Wilt Chamberlain, and it was your guy. The national commentators no longer were laughing at the Bulls; the joke was on them for their myopic projections.

"Building a winning team that can go deep takes time," reminded Vucevic. "It's hard to judge off one season and one playoff we played, but this team has a lot of potential. We obviously didn't have as many games together as we would like, but that's part of it. Overall, we can say it was a good season for us. It could have been better for sure, wanted it to be better. Overall, it's a good season for a team first time together and to get the Bulls back to the playoffs, at least, is a good positive to build on."

Nikola Vucevic and Brook Lopez.

Nikola Vucevic was one of the Bulls' most consistent players in the postseason, averaging 19.4 points and 12.4 rebounds in the series.

It was an unfortunate and disappointing finish, and little surprise in the end with LaVine in health and safety protocols, Caruso in concussion care, Lonzo Ball never returning from his knee surgery, and the Bulls little match for the Bucks after a competitive first weekend.

Perhaps the Bulls can look back at that first game narrow loss in Milwaukee as the one that got away and at least might have made it a series. Because then perhaps with DeMar DeRozan's 41 points in Game 2 and the Khris Middleton injury, maybe the Bucks are trailing 0-2 and are a bit more impulsive and uncertain.

There was no doubt, especially at the end without LaVine and DeRozan, the Bucks were far superior. They showed it in the Lost Weekend in Chicago with back-to-back dominating victories. And Wednesday with more inevitability than urgency, the Bucks headed toward a conference semifinals showdown with the Boston Celtics with the 4-1 series win.

There wasn't much to recount about this game after the Bucks started 20-7. TNT commentator Stan Van Gundy was saying he'd never seen a NBA team miss so many open three pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmp breezed to 33 points in 30 minutes, Pat Connaughton finally got going and made six threes, and Grayson Allen, now booed by the home fans after making shots following in the playful lead of his teammates to mock the Chicago catcalls, added 13 points. The Bulls got behind 49-20 and had one run to get within 66-55 early in the third quarter before the Bucks dropped in a predatory 13-2 how-long-do-we-have-to-take-this-seriously run. It was the third consecutive game lacking any fourth quarter climax.

"With Zach being out and Alex being out, we were going to have to shoot the ball well," acknowledged Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "It was pretty obvious they were going to load up on DeMar (11 points and seven assists). I thought he played a great game. I thought he generated a lot of shots. He didn't have a high assists total because we didn't shoot the ball particularly well. I give him a lot of credit for being unselfish.

Tap to listen to full postgame reaction from Billy Donovan following Chicago's Game 5 loss in Milwaukee.

With their size and length we needed to shoot the ball and we obviously could not make enough shots. We battled defensively; certainly their size at times was a challenge. Give them credit. They obviously outplayed us in the series and are world champions."

After DeRozan scored those 41 points in Game 3, the Bucks defense was simple: Don't let DeRozan shoot and see if those guys can make shots.

They couldn't. The Bulls were 15 of 52 on threes Wednesday, the same 28 percent they were for the series. The Bucks virtually invited them to shoot threes, which generally is the Bucks' strategy, anyway. LaVine and Caruso were their best three-point shooters in the series, but even that hardly would have been enough. Though a lack of size was often mentioned as a potential flaw for the team—exacerbated when Ball went out and the Bulls couldn't offset that with speed and transition play—just as significant was the lack of spot up three-point shooters. So even as DeRozan was unselfish and "playing the right way," it was asking a lot to expect the guys playing out of the short corners to make threes since it was Derrick Jones Jr., Javonte Green and Patrick Williams.

Coby White had 17 points Wednesday with four of 13 threes, but shot 27.6 percent on threes in the series and just 33 percent overall. Though he doesn't play a catch-and-shoot style. Patrick Williams led the Bulls with 23 points and made four of seven threes. But he had one rebound (none defensive) and zero assists. Troy Brown entered the rotation with 10 points. He's one of five players without contracts for next season that include LaVine, Tristan Thompson, Jones and Matt Thomas. White has a team option.

Coby White finishes a tough layup over a couple of Milwaukee defenders in transition.

Coby White finished with 17 points in the Game 5 loss in Milwaukee.

The team's road to perdition was its losses in 15 of the last 22 games. And then the 4-1 exit was perhaps the least competitive playoff series. Which poignantly led to dreams of what might have or could have been, with Ball, with Caruso without his surgery, Williams without his surgery four games into the season, Covid, Covid, Covid.

Of course, injuries and illness was epidemic in this pandemic.

But especially with the loss of their point guard, and then their backup point guard, and then LaVine dragging himself through the last part of the season on a capricious knee that limited his effectiveness—and many wouldn't have played on, especially as a pending free agent—the Bulls could only wonder about that team which led the stronger Eastern Conference much of January and as late as Feb. 25. There were alarm bells with the pernicious losing record against the primary opponents, but the competitiveness was there. Could it have led to something much more?

The Bucks didn't look that dominant.

"It was also a year in some ways if you were ever whole—and I know no team ever goes through an NBA season completely whole—if you would ever gotten whole what we would have looked like?" wondered even Donovan. "That to me is always going to be a little bit disappointing when you didn't really get a chance to see a whole new group together at the start of training camp. We got off to a really, really good start, and it was really impressive to me with a new group that hadn't had a lot of time together that they could gel and mesh the way they did.

"After Patrick went down our group never played together, and that was disappointing for those guys because they had built some chemistry coming in and there probably were some missed opportunities," said Donovan.

The question for any team once it loses is what comes next. Bulls management will address media in the coming days, but there's little they can detail with the playoffs continuing and thus no trading permitted, free agency contracts not able to be negotiated until July and a late June draft with exploratory work still to be done.

The Bulls for much of the season were one of the league's best stories with their high powered offensive play with DeRozan and LaVine and their speed and tenacity with Ball and Caruso. They caught much of the NBA and its fans, and certainly its oddsmakers, by surprise. Which, Donovan warns, won't happen again.

These Bulls despite the close of the season and playoffs aren't sneaking up on anyone anymore.

"We'll actually have to work harder going into this off season and next year to get back to this point," Donovan said. "I think a lot of people were uncertain of what our team would look like, and I think as they (Bulls) started to go through the year they earned and gained more respect around the league. I think it will be a lot harder next year. Because we got to this point there's nothing guaranteed next year. What our approach and mentality will be next year going into training camp will be critically important for us to build off some of the positive things that happened this year."

Donovan believes they can given the tenacity they showed as competitors and the rectitude as citizens. No hubris or corrosive envy. Donovan saw an assiduous commitment to a sporting utopia, if unachieved.

"This was a really, really special group to work with," Donovan raved. "I was really blessed and fortunate to be around these guys. I think just the professionalism and the way they put the team first will always stand out to me. And what we had to endure and go through with all the missing pieces at different points in time, the way they stuck together and never complained even with the Covid protocols and guys going in and out, and the testing and everything else. They really tried to focus on what they could control. Never whined, never complained. Not even when it got difficult even when our whole team got infected that one time. They kept their spirit up, always came to work, always believed the next person could step up and fill whatever gap or void was missing. It easy to go to work and work with these guys. I think they tried to give each other their best and I'll always be grateful for that. I think their heart and intention was always for the team first and try to do what they could to help the team."

And now we say goodbye to Bulls 2021-22. We all had some pleasant memories and stories to tell. The hope is it's not their sporting oeuvre as much as their introduction.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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