Bulls fall in close battle with Milwaukee 94-90

DeMar DeRozan scored 35 points to lead Chicago but it wasn't enough against the defending champs.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
FanDuel

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Round 1 Friday went to the Milwaukee Bucks, who took this one on points, 94-90 over the Bulls in the first game this season between the once again Eastern Conference rivals.

"Fun game," said DeMar DeRozan, who couldn't deliver the haymaker this time, but kept the Bulls standing until the end with 35 points and an uncanny 17 of 18 free throws. "Those are the games you want to be in, defending champs, we were shorthanded, didn't go in there with any excuses. Proud of my guys. Went out there and competed in a hostile environment, gave ourselves a chance even though we were missing shots. We competed defensively, we tried to make things difficult for them. And to have a chance late in the game."

The Bulls remarkably had a shot—though they needed more accurate ones—despite 18 percent shooting on threes (the Bucks were 19 percent) with DeRozan getting a pass back from Nikola Vucevic with about 25 seconds left in the game and the Bulls trailing 92-90. DeRozan initially fumbled the ball, giving Giannis Antetokounmpo an extra step to recover back from helping on Vucevic. DeRozan retrieved the ball and still got a good look—better than those in Indiana and Washington—but hit the front rim. The Bucks then got a pair of free throws for a 94-90 lead with 15.8 seconds left. And the Bulls got themselves a few more hustle plays that were good enough to contribute to their season worst 36 percent overall shooting with three more misses.

Tap to watch highlights from Chicago's close 94-90 loss to Milwaukee.

"Both teams shot the ball poorly from three," noted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "But if we didn't defend like that in the first half, maybe it's a 20 or 25-point game and you're just out of it. So I'm hopeful that can be a lesson for our guys in developing that kind of identity. I think the last two games we really battled and scrapped and rebounded and held our own, and that's the kind of (defensive) disposition we're going to have going forward until we get whole (with Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones out).

So with the first game of four this season between the Bulls and Bucks, there was no knockout with the Bulls now tied for second in the Eastern Conference a half game behind Brooklyn at 28-16. It was the Bulls fifth loss in their last six. The Bucks at 29-19 are fourth in the East, a game behind the Bulls.

But Alex Caruso did go down for an eight count midway through the third quarter that might revive some of the hostility that existed some 30 years ago when these two teams were trying to become contenders.

Caruso flying in for what he intended as a dunk after a long Bucks miss turned into a two-one-one for the Bulls. Ayo Dosunmu passed to Caruso, who went down hard being fouled by the notorious Grayson Allen, the fourth year pro who had picked up a reputation for cheap shot play with tripping antics while playing at Duke. Allen appeared to try for a block, but then followed through hard with his other hand, slamming down Caruso on his head and wrist. Caruso later said his wrist was sore and he put on a wrap. He stayed in the game. He said x-rays were negative.

But the usually Chill Bill morphed into Kill Bill after the game as Donovan—we could tell he was angry, but his voice never rose an octave—seemed to suggest the league should suspend Allen.

"It was really, really bad," Donovan said when asked about the incident. "We lost Patrick (Williams) on a flagrant foul to a pretty significant injury. I think Mitchell Robinson (then) was trying to make a legitimate play on the basketball; it happened to be a flagrant. But for Alex to be in the air like that, and to take him down like that, he could have ended his career. And he (Allen) has a history of this. That, to me was really dangerous. I really hope the league takes a hard look at something like that. Because he could have really, really seriously hurt him. It's really really dangerous to go after somebody like that. It wasn't good. It just was not good. Really, really, really dangerous play. 
 "He could have really, really, really jeopardized his career in a lot of ways," Donovan continued. "I don't know what his response will be to it; maybe he didn't mean to do it. I just know the play looked really, really bad on a guy that's got a history of doing that all the way back into college. Listen, I know it's a physical game, and there's plays at the basket and there's a lot of contact and things like that. There's a right way you can go up and have physicality and do that. Not that way."

Caruso said Allen never said anything to him.

"I went up, was going to try to two-hand flush, a little dunk in transition," Caruso said. "Didn't really know really what happened during the play, but afterward in looking at it, the dude just grabbed me out of the air. Kind of bull (expletive). Just glad that I didn't have any major, major scary injuries right away.

"To be honest, I don't watch much Duke basketball," Caruso added when asked about Allen.

Just a sort of lint on your collar kind of guy.

Can't wait for Round 2.

Though you have to hope it won't be much like this game, which was one of the uglier slogs you'll see in the NBA the days. Both teams shot terribly, and while there was a lot of hard play, I wouldn't say there was great defense all over the place. Because a lot of guys were open, very open, if understandably with the Bulls trying to help on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had the quietest 30 and 12 you'll see. And the Bucks, apparently not recognizing many of the Bulls starters, trapping, double teaming and blitzing DeRozan.

DeMar DeRozan shoots a floater over Milwaukee's George Hill.

DeMar DeRozan finished with 35 points in the loss vs. Milwaukee.

Former Bull Bobby Portis probably didn't have anyone within 10 feet of him on most of this threes. It proved a useful strategy for Vucevic, who had 19 points, 11 rebounds and the block of the game in the third quarter on a George Hill dunk attempt. Vucevic also made a crucial three with 1:59 left that at least gave the Bulls a chance at the end after a 12-6 Bucks run—that was considered a run in this game—for a 92-85 Milwaukee lead.

Portis is the Bucks best three-point shooter and was one of seven. But like a fast spreading virus, Coby White shooting 40 percent on threes for the season was zero for nine. Dosunmu, who was shooting almost 80 percent the last three games, was two of nine overall and one of five on threes. The Bulls came into the game the best field goal shooting team in the league. It seemed like they may have left the doors open at the Fiserv Forum and the wind off Lake Michigan was blowing those shots off target.

"Alex, Coby and Ayo, those three didn't have a great shooting night," agreed Donovan. "Coby had some good looks he normally makes; you have a night like that sometimes. I just wanted those guys to compete and stay in the game, and I think they all did that."

To their credit, the Bulls always do that, especially with Caruso back again.

LaVine in a low scoring game is certainly missed. But Ball's absence truly was noticeable in this game that looked like Knicks/Cavs from the mid-90s with Pat Riley's alley fighting Knicks and Mike Fratello's euphemistic tempo management.

Both teams scored about 20 points fewer than their season average, the Bulls 21 and the Bucks 18. The Bucks led in fast break points 7-4. At halftime, the Bulls still didn't have a fast break score. It's Ball more than anyone who fires the Bulls offense, pushing the ball and always looking ahead. Without him and reserves Dosunmu and White starting in the backcourt, the Bulls played deliberately, walking the ball into the front court and generally shooting later in the clock. When the shots usually get more difficult.

Donovan said afterward that wasn't the plan.

"It wasn't our intention going into the game to slow the game down; it happens when you go against good defensive teams," Donovan pointed out. He noted with 28 missed Bucks shots in the first half, the Bulls should not have been shut out in transition.

But it's also not uncommon to play like that against a team like the Bucks, which had its three main players in Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday back from injury. The Bucks are at their best with Antetokounmpo spinning down the lane in transition and the shooters pulling up. A slower game generally cuts down on the turnovers the Bucks rely upon.

The Bulls defense did bother Middleton into six of 15 shooting and stayed competitive on the boards, 53-49 Bucks. Tyler Cook in his first start helped with defense on Antetokounmpo while Tony Bradley and Alfonzo McKinnie didn't play.

The Bulls best shooter was reserve Matt Thomas, who made three of five threes. Though he played little down the stretch, presumably because he gets taken advantage of defensively.

Matt Thomas shoots the three against the Bucks.

Matt Thomas provided a spark off the bench for the Bulls, finishing with 11 points.

Though no one shot like DeRozan from the free throw line. He continued to absolutely flummox and frustrate defenders who insist they never touched him as he strides to the line. Bucks players seemed to spend more time watching TV than the game they way they kept eying the replay screens after DeRozan attempts and foul calls.

"I just get to my spot and don't let anyone alter my shot," shrugged DeRozan. "It's on you if you get in my way. Just a feel more than anything. Understanding how guys want to contest. I just stay firm in a lot of moves I want to take. And me knowing the guys want to contest a lot of my shots, so it's on them. I just follow though and continue to do what I've got to do and I guess I get the foul (call)."

Tap to listen to postgame reactions from DeMar DeRozan and Billy Donovan following Chicago's close loss to Milwaukee.

Those jabs, feints and parries really have been one of the more impressive things to see in the NBA this season. And though DeRozan had that late miss and Antetokounmpo had an impressive reverse layup for the 92-85 Milwaukee lead with 2:11 left, if the MVP voters were watching the ESPN national game, DeRozan had to score some points as the best player on the floor. He was much more efficient than Antetokounmpo, the latter who was 11 of 23 and takes some of the most head scratching fadeaways and long jump shots at questionable times. He's so good he can get away with that. Imagine if he actually gave it more thought.

Which perhaps provided some succor for the Bulls on a night they only should have had a puncher's chance with three starters out. Maybe the Bucks didn't take them seriously enough. But if that's all the defending champs have with virtually a complete roster, then this one really could go the distance.

"You can build from that being in these moments and situations," said DeRozan. "Everyone who got in that game competed; you can take a lot from it. This was a fully healthy team and they were defending their championship and we came in here and it came down to the last couple of possessions. There are no moral victories, but at the same time it's a lot of confidence can come from it. One of those playoff atmospheres. Our fans, their fans, and as a competitor you want to play in games like that. We didn't pull out the win, but it showed a lot about our character."

It was a grubby grind from the start, the teams four of 23 combined in the first quarter on threes and 24-20 Bucks, 45-44 at halftime. This definitely wasn't what the NBA had in mind when it went to a three-point shooting, less contact game. But Bulls fans weren't minding after the ride up I-94, chanting "MVP" when DeRozan was at the line. Bucks fans appeared to be calling for more brats and cheese.

Then came Allen's rabbit punch, after which the Bulls held on and led 69-68 going into the fourth quarter. Who said George Mikan and Bill Sharman couldn't play in this era?

But the Bucks finally were going inside more, the sort of body shots with a 42-20 advantage for the game in paint points that takes its toll in the late rounds. The Bucks had five more offensive rebounds and several second chances early in the fourth quarter that gave them some space, and DeRozan and Vucevic in the compubox stats missed with just a few.

"We didn't make shots, but we competed and defended," said Caruso. "And if we do that night in and night out, once we get a full squad and keep this going we can win games, and once we get them back I think we'll be in a good spot."

Got a question for Sam?

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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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