Tonight the Chicago Bulls (4-11) take the two-hour drive on I-94 North and make their first official visit of the year to Milwaukee to meet the Central Division leading Bucks (10-4) inside the brand new, state-of-the-art Fiserv Forum.
Despite suffering its first home loss (in seven games) against Memphis (116-113) the other night, the Bucks under new head coach Mike Budenholzer sure look to be legitimate contenders for the Eastern Conference crown. Milwaukee enters tonight with the second-best record in the East (Toronto — 12-3), but they rank first in the league in scoring (121.0) as well as point differential (+10.9).
Under Budenholzer the Bucks have been letting it fly from beyond the arc. Currently they lead the NBA in 3-pointers made (14.8) and are second in attempts (40.1). Their roster is peppered with floor spacers, including 7'0” center Brook Lopez who has been on fire from long distance, connecting on 41 threes while shooting an impressive .418 from the bend. Veteran small forward Khris Middleton has equally proven dangerous from downtown, connecting on an unheard of .452 from behind the arc. Former Bull Tony Snell has also been ridiculous (.459), while 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (.408), and veterans Ersan Ilyasova (.368) and Pat Connaughton (.371) aren't shy when it comes to shooting the long ball, as well.
Three paragraphs into this game preview and still no mention of “The Greek Freak?” Well, your wait has finally come to an end.
Once again Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (YAHN-iss ah-deh-to-KOON-boh) has been off-the-charts. Currently the 6'11” hybrid guard/forward/center is averaging 25.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists while shooting .560 percent from the field overall. The 6th year player who turns 24 next week is the only player in the league averaging 25/10/5 or more this season. Unlike his teammates mentioned above, Antetokounmpo won't inflict damage far from the basket. In fact he's shooting an ugly .071 from the arc. Where he makes his bones is in transition and by mercilessly beating defenders off the dribble on his way to the hoop. It's going to take all five Bulls defenders on the floor to sort of slow him down — that and a lot of luck. If Antetokounmpo ever nails down a consistent shot from outside the paint, he will literally be unstoppable.
Tonight also marks Bulls forward Jabari Parker's return to Milwaukee, who selected him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft in the hope that one day he and Antetokounmpo would lead the Bucks to championship. Unfortunately Parker twice tore his left ACL during his four-year tenancy and was allowed to leave town and sign with Chicago as a free agent over the summer. The 6'8” Windy City native enters tonight's contest as the Bulls' second leading scoring at 14.7 points. Parker also pulls down 6.5 rebounds and hands out 2.0 assists a night while shooting .443 from the field. Chicago will need a little more production out of him this evening in support of Bulls leading scoring Zach LaVine, whose streak of posting 20 or more points in 15 straight games ended against the Celtics. For the year LaVine ranks eighth in the league in scoring (25.9), fifth in free throws made (6.5) and seventh free throw attempts (7.5) per game.
This evening's contest is also the first of a back-to-back set for the Bulls who will return immediately home to meet the Toronto Raptors tomorrow night at the United Center.
After a fast start Wednesday in Boston, Chicago went ice cold in the second quarter in putting up just 11 points, allowing the Celtics to right themselves and take command of the game. After the dust settled, the Bulls ended up on the wrong side of a 111-82 thrashing.
In order to give themselves a shot of coming out on top tonight Chicago has to once again hit the floor running from the opening tip, establishing a fast pace and stick to the gameplan throughout the entire contest.
Tonight more than ever it is vital the Bulls make their presence felt on the glass as Milwaukee is one of the league's best rebounding teams, ranking near the top in most categories, having outrebounded all but two opponents this season. In order for the Bulls to produce a fast pace they have to at least hold their own on the boards so that they can ignite the offense by running the ball up the floor and denying Milwaukee time to set up defensively.
On the other hand, when fastbreak opportunities aren't available, Chicago has to open up the middle of the floor and ruthlessly attack the basket. They'll have to position shooters all along the 3-point arc to draw the defense to the perimeter and away from the basket. They have to freely share the ball to get everyone involved in the action, while at the same time they also need to be smart in keeping turnovers to a minimum.
Defensively, the Bulls have to simply out work all their opponents. Every player has to be focused, bring energy and provide maximum effort. As cursed as they are with injuries to key players the Bulls cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves. Instead, they have to hit the hardwood with a tenacious style. They have to battle for every rebound and fight for every loose ball, letting Milwaukee know all through the night that nothing will ever come easy.