If ever old acquaintances be forgot and never brought to mind, the Bulls probably would choose Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker.
That’s because the Bucks dynamic duo again, this time Saturday on New Year’s Eve in the United Center, sent up their fireworks early in a 116-96 victory over the Bulls, the Bucks third double digit win over the Bulls this month by an average of 19 points.
Antetokounmpo had 35 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks and Parker had 27 points. Bucks rookie second round pick Malcolm Brogdon, playing for the injured Matthew Dellavedova, added a triple double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Jimmy Butler had 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds for the Bulls, but it was little consolation or impact. The Bucks broke away in the fourth quarter that started 10-3 for the Bucks and continued from there in a jumble of fast breaks, dunks and three pointers.
“Just got to be better,” Butler said in brief post game comments. “We know their game and still let them get to their strengths. It’s always frustrating when you lose.”
The Bulls lost for the eighth time in the last 11 games and 11th in the last 16 to fall to 16-18. Milwaukee went past the Bulls at 16-16.
Doug McDermott had 13 points on three of six threes as the Bulls lost for the first time this season when making 10 threes. Nikola Mirotic had 10 points, making four of five shots. Robin Lopez had 12 points and 10 rebounds and Taj Gibson had 11 points. Dwyane Wade with this second of the back to back, which the Bucks also were playing, had eight points on three of 13 shooting.
Michael Carter-Williams, getting the start for Rajon Rondo, had four points on one of six shooting. Though Carter-Williams’ defense and activity was inspiring early when the Bulls took an 11-1 lead to start and 18-10 before the Bucks recovered.
“We did come out of the gate with great energy,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “I thought Michael was key in that early stretch in getting us out to a good start defensively (two steals and a falling down full court pass chasing down a loose ball for a Wade layup). Holding that team to 22 (first quarter) points. We gave them six on the break (in the first half), second half we gave them 11 and they pretty much got whatever they wanted. They were shooting 57 percent (for the game). It was way too easy for them. A lot of that started in transition and they were pretty much running downhill on us that second half.”
The Bucks also had a massive 58-28 advantage in inside points as they repeatedly got run out layups with Bulls not getting back on shots. The Bulls were outrebounded and the Bucks had 29 assists while the Bulls continued to hold the ball on offense or run a simple screen and shot.
That’s what Rondo was supposed to change. But it’s difficult from the bench, where he sat for the entire game. Rondo had started the last 610 games he’d played. But he was benched the fourth quarter earlier this week against Indiana and then the second half against the Pacers Friday.
Though Rondo has had well publicized issues before, namely in Dallas in being released during the playoffs, Hoiberg said Rondo has been positive.
“We met this morning at the practice facility,” Hoiberg said before the game. “He was great, very professional. We talked about accepting whatever role he has and helping our guys stay ready. I was proud of how he handled the situation last night. He was cheering for the guys from the bench and talking to them when they came out for rotational reasons. I think that is very admirable for a guy that has had the type of career he has had. I know that he’ll be ready when he’s called upon. It’s just the decision we decided to go with to see if we can change the flow of our team.’
After the game, Hoiberg reiterated Rondo’s positive attitude and said, “We will see how it plays out and evaluate again before our next one.”
Rondo after the game, in one of his longest sessions with reporters all season, said he was scheduled to meet with general manager Gar Forman after the game about his status. Rondo even joked he’d “explode” if he didn’t get his way. Then he laughed, and said, “Nah. I’ll continue to work, take care of my body, play more one on one, lift, give these young guys as much advice as I can while I’m on the bench with them.”
Rondo said Hoiberg told him he’d been looking slow. Rondo said he disagreed and said actually this was the best he’s felt at this stage of the season, that Hoiberg kept asking him if he were healthy and Rondo assuring him he was. Rondo did admit he could have picked up more aggressively on defense at times, but says over 82 games he has to pick and choose spots were he can make the most impact.
“I’m not surprised (being benched),” Rondo said. “It’s been a tough season for us, ups and downs; certain buttons are being pushed, the Bulls are trying to figure things out. I think I’m most effective when we get stops. I’m able to get out on the break and create and do what I do best; not when it’s a slowdown game. Teams load the paint up on us; just depends on us getting stops. Trying to figure out a way to help this team grow and get some wins.”
Rondo is correct about that since as much as the Bulls talk about it, they continue to walk the ball up, even after missed shots, and then often hold the ballon one side while working on a pick and roll or horizontal pass and shot. It’s why McDermott makes four shots early Friday and doesn’t see the ball again, or Mirotic Saturday is three of three in the first half and then gets two attempts in the second half.
“I thought we shared it early in the game and for the most part, obviously, in the last part got stagnant,” said Hoiberg. “The early energy was what we needed; just didn’t sustain it and hung our heads a little bit.”
That start was energetic and encouraging sparked by Carter-Williams, who also made a three on a Butler drive and pass, Butler handling a lot of the point guard late in the game. Robin Lopez was good early taking out John Henson after a tough game in Indianapolis. And Mirotic was hot coming in to close the first with the Bulls ahead 27-22. Jerian Grant backed up Carter-Williams, but was one of five in 18 minutes. They combined to shoot two of 11.
The Bucks jumped into the lead early in the second quarter with Antetokounmpo helping off on defense like a football safety to block several shots as the Bucks mostly doubled Butler and left everyone but McDermott or Mirotic alone to shoot. Cristiano Felicio had another followup dunk and Taj Gibson powered inside to push the Bulls ahead 51-46 before Antetokounmpo just ran the court and put in a three untouched to end the half. The Bulls did lead 51-49.
“This team is as long and athletic as any in the league,” said Hoiberg. “We have struggled against them the three times we played them; that’s an understatement.”
The Bulls defense faltered to start the second half and the Bucks made 11 of their first 13 shots, 72 percent overall in the third quarter. The Bulls still were within 80-76 after three with a vibrant offensive quarter from Butler and then Butler passing out to McDermott for a three pointer late.
But after Mirotic closed the Bulls deficit to one early in the fourth quarter, the Bucks ran off 10 straight points, most running out for easy scores. The Bulls floor balance was poor as guards were sinking in as other guards shot with no one to get back again and again. Butler and Gibson came back into the game and scored seven of the game’s next 10 points. But Parker hit an off balance three in front of the Bulls bench and then barely missed jumping over Lopez for a dunk and was fouled. The Bulls bounced a bunch of long shots off the rim thereafter and the Bucks made it look even worse than it was.
The Bulls sure could use a cup of kindness now as the calendar folds over to 2017 and the times of 2016 have gone by less favorably than hoped.
The Bulls open 2017 Monday in the United Center against Charlotte and then are in Cleveland Wednesday. As for Rondo, it’s unclear.
“I think not necessarily my best year,” said Rondo, averaging 7.2 points, 7.1 assists, 6.5 rebounds and shooting 37 percent. He leads the team in assists and is fourth in rebounds, but less than one rebound per game behind leader Lopez. He’s also third on the team in steals.
“I’m coming off a pretty big year in Sacramento,” said Rondo, who led the league in assists last season. “I was able to do things little differently, but obviously coming here playing with Dwyane and Jimmy I knew it would be different; that was OK with me. Fred and I talked in the beginning and he said I’d be able to call a lot of plays. But obviously the flow of the game and things may change throughout the season.
“I’m Rajon Rondo; it is what it is.”