Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Bucks (12.16.16)

The Chicago Bulls (13-12) and the Milwaukee Bucks (12-12) meet again tonight, this time at the United Center to close the book on a back-to-back, home-and-home set of games. The high-flying Bucks defeated Chicago last night in Milwaukee, 108-97 — and don’t be fooled by the final 11-point spread, as the Bulls were never truly close after the first quarter.

It was the Giannis & Jabari Show at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee yesterday as 22-year old hybrid superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (YAHN-iss ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh), aka The Greek Freak, wreaked havoc all over the hardwood with 30 points, 14 rebounds and three pilfers while Jabari Parker added 28 points (a number of them on powerful, rim-rocking dunks) to lead the Bucks to victory. Milwaukee led the entire game and even held a 24-point advantage early in the fourth quarter but a late Bulls rally cut the margin in half in the final few minutes. In truth, though, the game was never in doubt, as the Bucks snapped a three-game losing streak.

Chicago, on the other hand, lost for the fifth time in seven games and dropped its third straight on the road despite getting 21 points from Jimmy Butler, 20 from Dwyane Wade and 19 from Taj Gibson.

Although the season is only a little more than a quarter of the way through, the way Antetokounmpo is playing deserves serious MVP consideration. Last night was his fifth 30+ point game of the young season. On the year the long-armed 6’11”all-purpose guard/forward is averaging a team-leading and career-highs in minutes (34.7), points (22.6), rebounds (9.1), assists (5.8), blocks (2.0) and steals (2.0). In fact he’s been so dominant that he’s the only player in the league this season averaging over 20.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals a night.

As mentioned earlier, another young Milwaukee star to appreciate and keep an eye on is Chicago native Jabari Parker, a 6’8” 3rd-year forward out of Duke. By putting up 28 points last night, Parker has scored at least 27 points or more in four of his last five games. On the season he is averaging a career-high 19.8 points on 47.5 percent shooting from the field.

A major key in deciding who will win tonight’s game will be the battle for control of the paint. Milwaukee comes in averaging almost 50 points down on the block. Last night they outscored the Bulls 58-48 in the paint, converting 29-of-56 (51.8 %) shots inside the lane, while Chicago went 24-of-38 (63.2%). Although the Bulls made a higher percentage of their inside shots, the Bucks relentlessness in attacking the rim earned them an extra 18 attempts. Thus the lesson to be learned is that no matter how big and strong you are, if your opponent is allowed to put up 18 extra shots, chances are you’re not going to win.

A major problem for the Bulls of late is offense. They are clearly at their best when they push the ball up the floor and aggressively go on the attack. However, when they stop running the floor and in instead walk the ball up, the offense sputters and bogs down. When the pace of play slows, the ball is no longer shared freely and instead ends up stuck in someone’s hands for too long a stretch while everyone else stands around and watches. Oftentimes it turns into one-on-three battle, as the opponent’s defense soon slides over in an attempt to swallow the ballhandler, who ends up fumbling and turning it over. That happened a lot last night as Chicago turned the ball over 16 times to Milwaukee’s eight.

For the Bulls to right the ship this evening, they have to crash the boards at both ends of the floor. They especially have to look to get out on the break as often as possible and keep the ball hopping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Earlier this season whenever the Bulls established an aggressive offensive mindset, opponents have had a difficult time slowing them down. Chicago consistently kept the ball on the move, making the “extra pass” to find an open man. Points scored and team assist totals piled up. But lately, that hasn’t been the case. The Bulls desperately need to get back to playing that style of offense. Milwaukee looked to make the extra pass a lot last night, and notched 32 assists on 45 made field goals. Chicago — not so much — as they posted 23 assists on 35 made field goals.

Defensively, Chicago has to do a far better job of communicating with one another in order to shut down any open paths to the basket, especially whenever Antetokounmpo and/or Parker have the ball. If either attempts to drive into the paint, the Bulls, collectively, need send a clear and forceful message that something like that is no longer allowed. The Bucks are an exciting, athletic team that will look to turn tonight’s game into a track meet. In order for Chicago to come out on top, they simply can’t let them run free. Chicago’s team defense also can’t lose sight of the ball. The Bulls need to contest every pass and shot Milwaukee attempts, and they also must wrestle control of the boards and the paint, which, if successful should shut down Milwaukee’s electric running game.

In establishing a hardnosed tone from the moment they take the court, and sticking with it throughout the entire game, the Bulls can give themselves a great shot at getting on track with a victory.