Keys to the Game: Bulls at Heat (04.30.21)

The Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks meet in the second of three games scheduled this season, this time and the next (May 16) in Chicago at the United Center.

The teams hooked up on New Year's Day in Milwaukee, where two-time reigning NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, posted 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists to lead the Bucks to victory. That night, Milwaukee connected on 22-of-45 (48.9%) 3-point attempts in blasting the Bulls, 126-96.

After taking a 27-21 lead after the first quarter, the Bucks outscored the Bulls 35-19 in the second quarter to take a 22-point, 62-40 lead at halftime. In the second half, it was much of the same as Milwaukee pushed its lead to 30 points in the third quarter and never led by fewer than 20 the rest of the way.

The Bucks held Chicago to just 23.1% shooting from three (6-of-26) and turned 21 Bulls turnovers into 24 points. Besides Antetokounmpo's impressive night, Bryn Forbes went 4-for-6 from three on his way to an 18-point game. Two-time All-Star, Khris Middleton, chipped in 14 and former Bulls forward, Bobby Portis, provided a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.

The Bulls were led by Zach LaVine who scored a team-high 16 points, followed by Denzel Valentine with 14. Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White each chipped in a dozen points.

Milwaukee's victory extended its winning streak over the Bulls to 11 in a row. The last time Chicago came out on top in this series was on December 26, 2017, when the Bulls traveled up I-94 North and came away with a 115-106 road win at the Bucks' former home, the Bradley Center.

The Bulls come into tonight hoping to bounce back after getting routed by the Knicks in a 113-94 road loss on Wednesday. Nikola Vučević led the team with 26 points, 18 rebounds and three assists, Lauri Markkanen added 14 points off the bench while Garrett Temple and Coby White each scored 12 points.

As a team, Chicago shot 45% from the field, including a rather ordinary 10-of-29 from the 3-point line (34.5%) as they fought hard to rally back from an early 18-point deficit, only to get blown away in the final frame, as the Knicks outscored them 37-19 in finishing the game.

Milwaukee's in the same boat as Chicago this evening as they hit the floor hoping to bounce back after losing on the road last night, 143-136, to the Houston Rockets. Antetokounmpo played just 46 seconds as he appeared to step on the foot of Rockets center Kelly Olynyk on a driving layup attempt early in the game, rolling what was already a gimpy ankle. Antetokounmpo was able to limp to the locker room on his own, and later return to the bench, but sat for the rest of the game. As of this writing, his availability against the Bulls is up in the air, but you'd have to figure he's probably going to take the night off in an effort to help speed the healing process as the Bucks look ahead to the approaching playoffs in a couple of weeks.

As for the game itself, Middleton led the Bucks with 33 points and eight assists, and Forbes added 30 on 11-of-17 shooting off the bench while Jrue Holiday chipped in with 29 points, 10 assists and four blocks.

Milwaukee shot a blistering 52% from the field, including 16-of-39 from the 3-point line (41%) and at one point led by 17-points before halftime, before getting run down in the third and fourth quarters in allowing the Rockets to explode for 78 points in what became a shootout reminiscent of the 1970s NBA when defense seemed optional.

In order for the Bulls to give themselves a shot of coming out on top this evening, the team, as a cohesive unit, must uniformly sport a feisty attitude and play with an edge. They must be willing to lay it all out on the line each game when it comes to controlling the boards at both ends of the floor, and force their opponents away from the paint, denying them chances to run out in transition to score easy fastbreak points as well as put backs off missed shots.

The Bulls also have to stay focused and determined and get physical, fighting through, and not under screens, and make sure no one frees themselves from a defender or unearths an open routes to the hoop and shots from behind the 3-point arc.

No team in the league makes more shots than Milwaukee. On average they hit 44.5 shots on 91.5 attempts a game, shooting a remarkable 48.6% from the field, including 39.2% from downtown. They put up a league-leading 119.5 points a game, and rank 5th with 906 treys.

Without a doubt, Chicago simply cannot afford to lose anyone hovering around the arc this evening. Not only do the Bulls need to be physical under the basket, but they also have to put a body on anyone lingering out on the perimeter, otherwise it's going to be a long night for the home team.

Offensively, the Bulls need to continue to play unselfish, constantly passing the ball from player-to-player and bouncing it from side-to-side. Free-flowing movement places pressure on the defense, and if both ball and player movement are persistent enough, the defense will eventually crack and fall apart. Fluid ball movement also opens paths to the basket and opportunities to finish at the rim. Lastly, it keeps everyone invested and involved in the game.

Nikola Vučević's recent addition has permitted Chicago to modify its offensive scheme at the start of every game. These days the Bulls attempt to get the ball into his hands under the basket early and often as Vučević is one of the NBA's most efficient scorers.

Besides his velvet touch at the rim, Vučević is also a two-way threat as he can step behind the three-point arc and hit from deep. Currently he's shooting a robust 41.8% from the arc, placing him in the top 15.

Vučević's skillset also makes it impossible for opposing centers to plant themselves under the basket for the entire game. Once Vučević hits from the arc, his defender must abandon the paint to guard him up top. That opens up the floor and makes it easier for ballhandlers to locate teammates cutting to the basket for layups and easy scores.

In 16 games just this month, with this updated plan of attack firmly in place, Chicago, on average, has dished 28.8 assists a game, placing them near the top of the league.

In short, for Chicago to be successful tonight (and every night) they must be aggressive and sustain that mentality all through the game. They have to trust each other to make the right plays and fully commit to do what is needed to win, be that stepping in front of an opponent to take a charge, or diving head-first after a loose ball, and delivering third and fourth efforts going after long rebounds and batting the ball to an open teammate on the wing to pick up an extra possession.

Including tonight there are just 10 games left on the schedule. It's crunch time. If the Bulls keep their poise and give every effort for all 48 minutes of tonight's contest, they'll give themselves a chance to pull off an upset against a highly talented, longtime rival.