This afternoon the Chicago Bulls drive up I-94 North to take on the Central Division leading Milwaukee Bucks for the fourth and final time this season. For the past couple of years, the Bucks have had Chicago's number, sweeping the season series last season, 4-0, and this time around they hold a 3-0 edge.
Milwaukee hits the hardwood looking to pocket its seventh win in a row and 12th of 13, while the Bulls try to stay on track after notching a thrilling 118-116 comeback victory over Cleveland Saturday night at the United Center.
Although Chicago currently sits 12 games under .500 (16-28), they have won three of their last five. On Saturday, the Bulls couldn't do much right during the first three quarters, falling behind Cleveland by as many as 19 points at one point. However, in the final stanza Chicago's defense cranked up the pressure, forcing the Cavs into committing 10 turnovers and outscoring them 31-14 to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Per usual, Zach LaVine was on fire, especially down the stretch, scoring 21 of his game-high 42 points during the fourth. LaVine has now posted 20 or more in 10 straight games. In this span he is averaging a whopping 30.6 points while shooting 50% from the field, 37% from behind the arc, while also grabbing 5.1 rebounds and handing out 4.3 assists.
As for Milwaukee, they sport the league's best mark at 38-6, and are 20-2 at home at the Fiserv Forum. They're led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who consistently drops jaws every game he plays. The reigning NBA league MVP puts up 30 points a game while also adding 12.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists, leading the Bucks in all categories. He is also shooting a blistering 55.3% from the field.
Antetokounmpo's top wingman is All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who checks in at 19.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
In Milwaukee's last outing, the Bucks defeated Brooklyn 117-97, with Antetokounmpo posting 29 points and 12 rebounds while Middleton tallied 20 while shooting 7-of-12 from the field and 3-of-5 from distance. Over his last six games, Middleton has produced 23.4 points while shooting a ridiculous 65.1% from the floor and 66.7% from behind the arc.
Without a doubt, the Bulls' primary task will be to keep Antetokounmpo and Middleton from going off again. Thus, Chicago needs to be aggressive and possess a hardnosed attitude from the moment they step off the team bus. Collectively, Chicago must make Antetokounmpo and his running mates work extremely hard at both ends of the court.
The Bulls' three-headed backcourt of Kris Dunn, Tomas Satoransky and LaVine will need to ignite the offense by consistently moving the ball up the floor at a lightning quick pace and never shy away from attacking the rim. Power forward Lauri Markkanen and fill-in center Luke Kornet will also need to play key roles by crashing the boards and protecting the rim to slow Milwaukee's offensive firepower.
Defensively the Bulls must trust one another, never failing to rotate or jump out to put a body on, and a hand in the face, of an open shooter behind the arc. They must also constantly pressure the ball, denying the Bucks opportunities to post easy run-out scores.
Offensively, Chicago must share the ball, making sure everyone gets involved in the action. To produce scoring opportunities the Bulls simply cannot afford to stand around and force LaVine to carry the burden alone. Continuous movement, cutting and slashing through the paint, and a willingness to make the extra pass in search of an open teammate is vital for success.
It's going to take a complete team effort to beat the Bucks, especially at home. Therefore, the Bulls will also need heady contributions off the bench, especially from rookie Coby White and veteran Thaddeus Young.