Keys to the Game: Bulls at Bucks (01.01.21)

The Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks tip-off 2021 in style tonight at the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee. Fans can catch all the action live on TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / WSCR-AM 670) beginning at 7:00 PM.

Chicago notched its second victory in a row yesterday against the Washington Wizards in our Nation's Capital, 133-130. The Bulls, after dropping their first three games at home to start the 2020-21 season, now sport the same 2-3 record Milwaukee holds heading into tonight's game.

In yesterday's high-powered victory over the Wizards, the Bulls were forced to play shorthanded after it was announced shortly before tip-off that starting forward Lauri Markkanen, and reserves Tomas Satoransky, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison were being sidelined due to NBA Health and Safety Protocols. So, in true Chicago, "next man up" fashion, veteran forward Otto Porter Jr. filled in for Markkanen in the starting lineup and produced a double-double with a team-leading 28 points and 12 rebound effort. All-in-all, for the second game in a row, seven Bulls scored in double figures as the team did a fantastic job of sharing the ball, connecting with 34 assists on 50 made field goals. Zach LaVine once again had a strong night with 22 points and seven assists, while his backcourt running mate, Coby White, posted the first double-double of his career with 16 points and a team-high 10 assists.

Collectively, Chicago's bench also stepped up its game with Porter Jr. sliding into a starter's role, outscoring Washington's reserves 41-29, thanks primarily to savvy and gritty efforts from Thaddeus Young (15 points, six assists and two steals) and Daniel Gafford (15 points, five rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot). Young, a 14-year NBA veteran, was making his first appearance on the season after recovering from a serious leg infection that sidelined him throughout the preseason and the first four games of the regular season.

After playing four of their first five games on the road to begin the 2020-21 season, Milwaukee returns home to begin a five-game homestand. The Bucks enter tonight's game on a 10-game winning streak over Chicago, which is the second-longest winning streak for either team in the 52 seasons they have been playing against one another.

The Bucks are coming off a 119-108 road loss to the Miami Heat on Wednesday, one day after routing the same Heat squad, 144-97, behind an NBA-record 29 3-pointers. In Wednesday's loss, Milwaukee blew a third-quarter, 12-point lead, allowing Miami to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, reigning league MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, recorded a triple-double (26 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) in leading the Bucks attack, however fellow Milwaukee All-Star Khris Middleton struggled, shooting 3-of-15 and finishing with 8 points. Middleton had scored 25 in Milwaukee's blowout 24-hours earlier, going 10-of-13 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from behind the 3-point arc.

As for what keys to look for tonight in order for the Bulls to win for the third straight time, Chicago is going to need to continue working on communicating and trusting one another at both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Bulls must continue to freely share the ball, while also keeping turnovers in check. The ball must swiftly skip from player-to-player and from side-to-side in order to force Milwaukee to work on defense. Chicago simply cannot allow themselves to slip into the habit of standing around and letting the ball get stuck in a player's hands for too long or allow that player to attempt to take on Milwaukee's defense all by themselves. Constant ball and player movement in and out of the paint is vital when it comes to establishing a free-flowing offensive rhythm.

As for defense, the Bulls need to stay focused and poised when Milwaukee looks to turn the game into a track meet. A primary team goal must be to keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint as much as possible. The "Greek Freak" does the most damage when he's allowed to slash into the paint and finish with authority at the rim. However, he's proven to be a mere mortal when kept outside on the perimeter, and in fact, he does opponents a favor when he opts to shoot from behind the arc. It's when Antetokounmpo steps inside the bend, that his superpowers are in full force, allowing him to impose his will whenever and however he wants.

Chicago's defenders must also keep a sharp lookout all around the 3-point arc as the Bucks are one of the best in the game when it comes to long distance dialing, especially if left alone for open shots. Everyone, including the team's equipment manager, can knock down jumpers with regularity at every opportunity. The Bucks play a fast, fun and exciting game, where they look to run and gun in the hopes of rewriting both team and league record books every night. In setting the NBA record for most 3-pointers against Miami earlier this week, 12 players hit from downtown as Milwaukee hit on 29-of-51 (.569) attempts from behind the 3-point arc. It was the 109th time in league history a team had attempted 50 or more shots from behind the arc, but the first time a team actually connected on 50% or better in doing so. The Bucks primary long-distance snipers coming into tonight are Middleton at 6.2 attempts (.452%) per game, followed by veteran guards Jrue Holliday (.385%) and Donte DiVincenzo (.615%) at 5.2 each. Antetokounmpo is next on the list at 4.8 attempts, but he's hitting on only 25% of his launches.

Thus, in order for the Bulls to post another victory tonight, the team is going to have to dig deep and come up with another gritty and determined effort on the boards, in the paint, and off the bench.

For the second night in a row Chicago will have to take the floor shorthanded without help from Markkanen, Satoransky, Arcidiacono and Hutchison.

While the Bucks led the NBA in pace (105.51) last year, so far this season they've slipped to 11th (103.60), while the Bulls have taken over as the league's fastest team with a pace of 109.25. So, this game sets up for a lot of scoring.

If Chicago can keep turnovers in check and battle Milwaukee tooth and nail on the boards, and look to outhustle the Bucks for every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves a shot of pulling off an upset and return home to face Dallas Sunday night riding the wave of a three-game winning streak.