Keys to the Game: Bulls at Bucks (11.28.18)

Tonight the Bulls make their last trek of the regular season up I-94 North to Milwaukee to take on the Central Division leading Bucks at Fiserv Forum. All together the Bulls and Bucks will battle four times, with the next pair taking place on February 11th and 25th at the United Center.

In the first meeting a couple of weeks ago at Fiserv, Chicago came out of the gates hot, connecting on seven 3s, shooting 61.5 percent from the field to jump to a 40-27 lead after one. The Bulls continued rolling along in the second quarter, stretching its edge to 63-45 at halftime. However, once the third quarter began the roles reversed as Chicago went ice cold as the Bucks went on a 19-6 run, cutting their deficit to 69-64. Not long after that Milwaukee caught and passed Chicago, never looking back before posting a 123-104 victory. All told the Bucks outscored Chicago 78-41 in the second half and held Chicago to 33.3 percent shooting. Eric Bledsoe led Milwaukee with 25 points while superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (YAHN-iss ah-deh-to-KOON-boh) and Khris Middleton chipped in 23 points each. Bulls forward Jabari Parker led Chicago’s offense with 21.

Under new head coach Mike Budenholzer Milwaukee looks to be serious contenders for the Eastern Conference crown, and quite possibly NBA Champions come June. Currently they hold the second-best record (14-6) in the league (Toronto is 18-4), and rank first in scoring (121 as well as point differential (+11.1).

Under “Coach Bud” the Bucks have been letting it fly from downtown. They come in tonight as the league’s top squad in 3-pointers made (14.6) and rank second in attempts (40.8) per game. Their roster is loaded with floor spacers, including 7’0” center Brook Lopez, who so far has connected on 50 3s while shooting a career-high 37.3 percent from behind the arc.

Middleton has proven equally dangerous from downtown, averaging 19 points while hitting 41.2 percent of his 3-attempts. The impending free agent is tied for eighth overall and fourth in the East with 61 treys.

Through 20 games, Bledsoe is producing 15.4 points, 6.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting a career-best 50.4 percent. So far he is one of only five in the league to average such impressive stats. The other four guys? Steph Curry (Golden State), LeBron James (Lakers), Kevin Durant (Golden State) and Ben Simmons (Philadelphia).

But if you really want to talk about Bucks basketball, everything starts and ends with Antetokounmpo, who once again has been off-the-charts and could be the league’s MVP after the dust settles on the 2018-19 campaign.

The 6’11” hybrid guard/forward/center is averaging 26.8 points, 13 rebounds and 5.9 assists while shooting 57.2 percent. Now in his 6th season, Antetokounmpo is the only one in the NBA averaging better than 25/10/5 this season.

However as great as he is, Antetokounmpo generally won’t inflict pain far from the basket. In fact he’s shooting just 12.5 percent from behind the arc. Where he makes his money is in transition and by beating defenders off the dribble. If the Bulls have their sights set on slowing him down tonight, it’s going to take all five defenders to keep him from getting into the paint. If Antetokounmpo ever gets a consistent outside jumper, he literally will be unstoppable.

Tonight marks Jabari Parker’s second trip to Milwaukee since signing with Chicago over the summer as a free agent. The Bucks tabbed him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft in the hope that one day he and Antetokounmpo would lead them to title. Unfortunately Parker twice tore his left ACL during his four-season Brew City tenure and was allowed to leave town after his rookie deal expired. The 6’8” Chicago native is the Bulls’ second leading scoring at 16.3 points while pulling down a team-best 7.2 rebounds. The other night in a heartbreaking 108-107 loss to San Antonio, Parker picked up his fourth double-double (18 points/10 rebounds) of the year, and over his last five games is averaging 20 points and 9.2 rebounds, shooting 49.3 percent from the field.

Chicago’s leading man this season has been 23-year old guard Zach LaVine. The 6’5” 5th year player notched 28 points in each of the Bulls’ last two games. Monday’s contest against the Spurs was his fourth-straight 20+ point night and 18th this season, tying him with Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Only Golden State’s Kevin Durant has done better with 20 games of 20+ points scored.

For the year, LaVine ranks 9th in the league in scoring (25.7), 7th in free throws made (6.2) and 9th in free throw attempts (7.2) per game.

In order to give themselves a real shot of coming out on top this evening the Bulls again have to hit the floor running from the opening tip and stick to the gameplan throughout the entire night. More than ever it is also vital they establish a presence on the glass as Milwaukee has been one of the NBA’s best rebounding teams, ranking near the top in most categories (Rebounds Per Game – 1st / 50.6; Defensive Rebounds – 1st / 40.5; Rebound Differential – 1st / +7.6). In order for Chicago to tap into its wealth of athleticism they have to at least hold their own on the boards to give them an opportunity to ignite their offense by getting into transition and also deny the Bucks time to set up defensively.

When fastbreak opportunities aren’t available for Chicago, they’ll have to open up the middle of the floor by stationing shooters all along the arc and be willing to attack the basket. Spreading out forces the defense to defend the perimeter and abandon the paint. Chicago will also have to freely share the ball, getting everyone involved in the action, while at the same time keep turnovers to a bare minimum.

Defensively, the Bulls simply have to out hustle the Bucks in every way imaginable. Every Chicagoan must stay focused, bring energy and provide maximum effort. As shorthanded as they are with injuries to key players, Chicago can’t afford to feel sorry for themselves or wave a white flag. Instead, they have to show up each game with a tenacious attitude, battling for every rebound and every loose ball.