The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the more promising teams in the Eastern Conference, currently in a race with a half dozen teams for that last home court spot in the playoffs. But here’s the scary part about these 11-22 Bulls who Tuesday defeated the Bucks, 115-106, the second Bulls win in Milwaukee in less than two weeks.
The Bucks have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who led all scorers with 28 points, though just four in the decisive fourth quarter when the Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic, Kris Dunn and David Nwaba made the big plays.
And, sure, it’s unfair to judge teams when one wins both games, as the Bulls did, this time breaking from a tie game after three quarters to dominate the stretch run. But after Antetokounmpo, the Bulls appear to have the deeper team with more talented players capable of making plays. And they’re the ones supposed to be playing for the draft pick?
”Great win against a good team, and I hope we keep it going,” said the rugged Nwaba, who had two crucial offensive rebounds for putback scores in the fourth quarter and was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo down the stretch.
Perhaps the Bulls need to accept the inevitable, that they accumulated more talent than they believed more quickly than they expected.
“You look at our record since Niko has been back (8-2), but another key is we also got David back at that same time.,” noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “You have two guys out there that understand what we’re trying to do, and two guys that are going to go out there and battle whoever they’re guarding. You look at our defense and where it’s gone since Niko’s come back and since David has come back; that’s been a big difference for our team.”
The Bulls were led by 24 points and eight rebounds from Mirotic with a pair of threes in the fourth quarter, the second with 4:53 left for a 103-94 lead, settling through the net without grazing the rim like a diamond down a well. Dunn had 20 points, 12 assists, four steals and two blocks, and then the best of all, lining up Antetokounmpo with a minute left and the Bulls holding a 109-104 lead. Not to say Antetokounmpo has long arms, but he was delivering beers simultaneously to fans on opposite sides of the court at halftime. Dunn quickstepped past Antetokounmpo left and finished the drive for a layup and he could have called game.
“I felt like I had the matchup,” said Dunn, a half foot shorter, his own exceptionally long arms appearing like stumps next to Antetokounmpo. “I wanted to be aggressive. I tried to be aggressive the whole game. He’s long and athletic, but I thought I could get at his feet and that’s what I tried to do. We’re young and rebuilding, but I think we’re capable of competing against any team.”
Justin Holiday had 15 points and Denzel Valentine 13. But the game was most won by the Bulls reserves, who outscored Milwaukee’s 54-25. Mirotic had those 24 points and Nwaba had a team high nine rebounds. Bobby Portis had nine points and eight rebounds and a whopping plus-26 on the game impact plus/minus rating, 15 points higher than anyone else. Jerian Grant added nine points.
“After my injury, I am back with energy, back with a fresh mind,” Mirotic said in the on court post game interview. “I feel the key was the team. We played great as a team, especially defensively against Giannis. Really important for us after two tough games on the road in Cleveland and Boston.”
Robin Lopez even playfully grabbed Mirotic’s beard running by as Mirotic did his interviews with local and national media. Mirotic’s beard was overheard telling Lopez to get a trim.
“You can see the chemistry is very different right now,” Mirotic added. "Everybody knows his role; everybody is doing something he needs to do and defensively we are improving. This team is scoring each night 100 points; it’s been amazing. I think we are finally learning how to play with each other; we know where to find each guy. This has a lot to do with Fred. Fred is putting everyone in the right place, making the right call each time and the team is executing very well.”
Which is another constant in this recent Bulls run. Players unsolicited are routinely praising and supporting Hoiberg, who has to be a contender for NBA December Coach of the Month. After all, when the Bulls were 3-17 after losing at the buzzer in Denver the last day of November, who predicted they’d be at least .500 in December? Is there a bigger surprise team in the month of December, the Bulls currently 8-5 with wins over the Celtics, 76ers, Knicks, Jazz and Bucks twice.
And this is supposed to be a contending Bucks team.
Giannis is fabulous, but the Bulls seemed to wear him out with Nwaba pressuring him. He retreated to several jump shots late. As for that Bucks starting five, Dunn was every bit the matchup for veteran Eric Bledsoe and superior down the stretch, Khris Middleton had a poor shooting game and was mostly matched by Holiday. And Tony Snell still looked asleep. It was hard to see where John Henson could even get time in the Bulls rotation.
And we know the Bulls are going to miss the playoffs.
LaVine, practicing with the Windy City Bulls and ready to begin full contact practices later this week, was sending Tweets after the game about his excitement to join this group.
The Bulls had 54 inside points, 13 points off fast breaks and forced the Bucks into 20 turnovers for 24 points and dominated the boards. Three Bulls players had more rebounds than the Bucks leading rebounder.
And, no really, did I mention this is a good Bucks team.
“Fourth quarter we continued to attack,” said Hoiberg. "We kept the pressure on by getting out (running). I thought rebounding was excellent, got some key offensive rebounds that led to extra possessions for us. I thought we did a solid job and just enough stops to hold on at the end.”
The Bulls got a good start from Valentine, who quietly has been more efficient and active this season, seven first quarter points with a three before the Bucks closed fast for a 31-22 lead after one quarter. But there were some encouraging signs for the Bulls. Dunn was penetrating and from deep passed to Mirotic for a three, and later in the quarter Mirotic finished a Lopez pass with a powerful dunk.
It’s another of the neo-Niko trends of 2017-18, finishing with dunks instead of flips and flops, not straddling the lane but going inside to mix it up. In fact, Mirotic and Portis off the bench were so effective they closed the game with Lauri Markkanen sitting. It was the absolute correct move, though Hoiberg cannot precisely say that. Markkanen since returning from missing three games with back spasms has been shooting poorly. But mostly he’s played tentatively and backed off contact, seemingly signs of finally feeling the demands put on him when Portis and Mirotic were out after their fight.
Plus, Portis and Mirotic were so in sync they were even exchanging friendly greetings, if not dinner invitations. We’re starting to let this go, but not completely.
That Bulls second unit led by Mirotic, Portis and Nwaba turned the game around for the Bulls to start the second quarter, a 14-4 start. And then it was lead trading the rest of the way. There were eight ties and seven lead changes. That run gave the Bulls a 36-35 lead and concluded with a fast break, Mirotic running the right wing, getting a pass from Paul Zipser, ball faking his defender and scoring an easy layup. The Bulls then closed the half leading 56-53 with Portis rebounding with a jumping jack follow dunk and Holiday driving in for a running slam dunk.
It was a disappointing night with one of 12 shooting for two points for Dunn in Boston on Saturday, but the second year guard and first time starter has been resilient after poor games. He showed that immediately Tuesday and kept it up, his left side drive — Antetokounmpo should have been watching for later — giving the Bulls a 72-69 lead. Mirotic and Portis took turns on the offensive boards on the same possession after the Bulls fell behind, leading to a Mirotic jumper. And Holiday’s forced bank shot tied the game at 83 after three quarters.
Then it was pretty much all Bulls in the fourth quarter, a 15-9 start to the quarter kicked off by Mirotic and Grant threes.
Then it was the Bulls with the big plays, Nwaba with a rebound and then two offensive rebounds on the possession before he finished for a 100-92 Bulls lead with 6:10 left.
Plus that defense on the MVP candidate.
“He’s an unbelievable defender,” added Dunn. “People don’t realize how strong he is. He’s a muscle head. Props to him for taking on that role and trying to make it difficult for him.”
Mirotic drained that huge three from the left wing with 4:53, Nwaba added another put back score on a missed Mirotic three with 1:51 left for the Bulls biggest lead at 109-98. But the Bucks answered with a pair of quick threes around a Holiday miss and was it going to be a nuclear meltdown? Maybe last month.
Dunn has closed off that talk with big time finishes in the seven-game winning streak, and he did it again, and against the best the Bucks could offer on defense in Antetokounmpo. And then with 16.9 seconds left Dunn and Middleton were ejected with double technical fouls after falling to the floor in a maze of elbows, pulls and pushes. Talk about keeping it going seriously for 48 minutes.
"Kris was terrific all night,” said Hoiberg. "I really liked Kris’ attack all game long.”