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By Sam Smith | 4.02.2015 | 1:32 a.m. CT
It’s not difficult to know you’re having a bad day, like the Bulls did Wednesday in a 95-91 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
You could swear the invitation said casual, or you could find yourself with maybe 5-10 Aaron Brooks trying to defend 6-6 Michael Carter-Williams, who would lead the Bucks with 21 points, including 15 consecutive in the second quarter. You could be told how cute your grandchild is when people see you with your four-year-old, or give up 20 offensive rebounds to a Bucks team without a seven footer. And you can tell your doctor you hate looking at yourself in the mirror and hear at least your eyesight is perfect, or as the Bulls did shoot 65 percent on free throws, 19 percent on threes and commit 22 turnovers.
“We didn’t close out the second quarter well,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau about almost being outscored by just Carter-Williams. “We didn’t start the game well, rebounding wise. They crushed us on the boards. The second shots hurt us (23-10 second chance point deficit). The turnovers hurt us. The fourth quarter we played poorly.”
But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
There’s no April Fool’s joke coming here as the Bulls opened up their unofficial stretch run coming up limping. You know, having a perfectly wonderful evening. Just this wasn’t it.
“They wanted it more that we did; that’s it,” said Pau Gasol, who had a quiet 14 points and 11 rebounds. “That’s what the rebounding is about. Putting bodies on people and going after it. We outplayed them in three (previous) games (and nine straight in Milwaukee); tonight they wanted it more than we did. They approached the game with better will and better effort and they got the reward.
“The loss at this point of the season is something I’m not happy about,” Gasol added. “We should be, as we have been, sharper. Tonight it was an important game to continue to do things properly and right as we approach the playoffs and the final stretch of the season and a critical time of year. So tonight it was not a good night for us.”
The loss left the Bulls at 45-30, including six losses in their last eight road games, and now technically in fourth place in the Eastern Conference as Toronto has the tiebreaker by virtue of winning their division. It also put the Bulls three games behind Cleveland with just seven left, and thus unlikely to have a potential later home court advantage.
Though the way the Bulls were outhustled, out maneuvered and out played by a sub-.500 Bucks team suggests no playoff series should be taken for granted. Though the Bulls had chances to tie in the last minute with three consecutive missed three pointers, the better and smarter team all game appeared to be the Bucks, who had lost eight of their previous 10.
Sure, the Bulls are expected to get Derrick Rose back from surgery perhaps next week. Rose is practicing with the team and said earlier in the day he’s progressing but declined to select a specific return date. But Kirk Hinrich went out in the third quarter with a knee injury after taking a charge. Thibodeau said X-rays were negative, but Hinrich had to be helped to the locker room, which didn’t bode well for an early return.
The Bulls then went much of the fourth quarter with Brooks, who had a brutal game trying to matchup with the much taller Carter-Williams. Though many have questioned the trade of Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams given the Bucks have stumbled since then, you could see the wisdom in the move in the way Carter-Williams’ play—not unlike the way Bucks coach Jason Kidd dominated guard matchups in his playing career—effectively turned the game for the Bucks.
Carter-Williams took the much smaller Brooks into the post time and again in the second quarter when he scored 15 points to 17 points for all five Bulls starters. The Bulls tend not to be a team that uses double teams much in order not to compromise the defense and leave open outside shooters. So Brooks, who always competes hard, fought and fought. But the reigning Rookie of the Year continued to back him in and score. That enabled the Bucks to tie the game at 48 at halftime.
And it was a feisty and motivated, if less talented, Bucks team that drew three technical fouls for protesting officiating.
“Bad loss,” agreed Joakim Noah, who had four points and six rebounds in 31 minutes. “I saw a team that played hungrier than us tonight; they definitely had the better edge than us and beat us on the boards real bad. I know I have to play at a high level; disappointed right now the way I played. Just got to move on and get ready for the next one. All the hustle stats, every loose ball, all the offensive rebounds they got; disappointing loss.”
The Bucks were then ready to open the second half. They went to Carter-Williams against Brooks again, but this time Carter-Williams waited for the double and pitched out.
“The thing that hurt us was we closed and are right there, but we don’t challenge shots,” said Thibodeau. “You get what you deserve in this league.”
The Bucks converted three of four three pointers in the third quarter and grabbed an early 61-55 lead, their largest of the game.
“We’re very conditioned by the call of the coach,” said Gasol, who got just 11 shots and none in the fourth quarter. “So it’s not about one guy trying to take over; we had good looks, too. Niko (Mirotic) had a bunch of looks, missed them (zero of five on threes). Mike (Dunleavy) had a good look (in the last minute to tie), missed. Shot the ball poorly, turned over the ball too much. And we gave up too many offensive rebounds and lost the game. I was doubled all night, every time I touched the ball close to the basket. We didn’t do that very much against Carter-Williams and he created a lot of problems. So game plan, execution was not good enough.”
It wasn’t very good anywhere for the Bulls.
Butler did bull his way to the free throw line for eight of eight along with seven rebounds and his game high 25 points, though he was one of four on threes; Taj Gibson was strong, especially early, powering over the thinner Bucks’ interior players. But Gibson played just eight first half minutes while scoring 10 points, and then he had foul trouble in the second half. He shot five of six for 12 points in about 20 minutes. Mirotic had a rough go with six points and four turnovers while Tony Snell played about 11 minutes with one point. With Hinrich out early, E’Twaun Moore played eight minutes, but was just one of five.
Yet, the Bulls are a resilient team and with Brooks scoring five late points in the third and Gasol making a three-point play and the Bucks seeming to continue to melt down with another technical foul, the Bulls pulled ahead 74-70 entering the fourth quarter.
The Bulls have played games like this with the Bucks for the last few years with nine straight Bulls wins in Milwaukee coming in and a supportive Chicago crowd regularly driving up for the games with tickets easier to get. So it seemed the pattern would repeat as the Bulls slipped ahead despite being outplayed through three quarters, including 17-6 on second chance points.
But the Bucks are intriguing team with their huge perimeter size. Their big men in Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova are less impactful while their three perimeter players are 6-11, 6-7 and 6-6 and switch all the pick and rolls. Their defensive play flummoxed the Bulls down the stretch as the Bulls kept running into late shot clocks and in one stretch shot three air balls in six field goal attempts. Even then, the Bulls still led 84-81 on a tough Butler post up and fadeaway with under six minutes remaining. Butler followed that with a strong drive. Butler had been doing an excellent job on Bucks hot scorer Khris Middleton, who was only five of 15 for the game. But as Butler rotated to help against Carter-Williams’ postups and penetration, Middleton scored on a three, a drive and a jumper to give the Bucks a 90-88 lead with 3:30 left.
“Momentum shift,” said Gibson. “Failed to take away a couple of things on defense as far as not following the scouting report, not enough energy as far as rebounding the ball late. Like Thibs said, that team, we’d beaten them so many times and beaten them good. He told us they are going to come out and give us their best and they did. There are only a couple of games left. And then playoffs; you can’t give a team any kind of light; that’s when they will come around and bite you.”
The Bucks still remain a possible Bulls first round opponent as they are comfortably sixth in the East.
“That’s a talented team,” added Gibson. “Not the same team. Michael Carter-Williams gave us fits as far as his drawing double teams. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You’ve got to always have that dog mentality. We have to regroup, really get our hunger back because we understand come playoffs you can’t give a team like that any kind of light because you saw how Michael Carter-Williams, he was attacking us and at times we didn’t know what to do. This game tells us we still have a long way to go as far as understanding how to approach the next game. This sucks to lose a team you can possibly see in the first round and give them a lot of confidence.”
The Bulls had plenty of chances late.
Gasol was fouled on a strong rolling move to the basket trailing 92-90 with 1:41 left. But he made one of two free throws. Then once again the Bulls could not control the boards and the wispy Ilyasova tipped in a Carter-Williams miss for the effective winner and 94-91 lead with 1:07 left.
“No excuses, we didn’t win,” said Butler. “That’s all that matters. No matter how many times you turn the ball over, yadda, yadda, yadda, you have to win the game. They played well, big guard, small guard, everywhere on the floor. Whooped our (butts) on the boards, to tell you the truth; it’s not the bigs’ fault. The majority was the guards since we didn’t get in there and help. That can’t happen.”
The Bulls still got three looks at threes from Mirotic twice and Dunleavy, the gritty Brooks getting offensive rebounds to set up the second and third shots. But the Bulls missed all three attempts to tie. The Bulls thought they succeeded with a trap on the inbounds with 9.6 seconds left. But the Bucks got a timeout. Giannis Antetokounmpo was fouled and made one of two for the final score.
“It definitely made it a lot harder (to catch Cleveland),” said Gasol. “It’s frustrating because we kind of did it to ourselves. So we’ll see how badly these losses cost us. Just frustrating to lose a game like this when we could have done things a lot different, a lot better.”
Was that Bulls players in the locker room afterward spraying WD-40 and thinking it was deodorant? Bad day. And got to still get the stink off.