Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Bucks (02.25.19)

Tonight the Chicago Bulls (16-44) and the Milwaukee Bucks (45-14) close the book on their season series at the United Center. Milwaukee has won each of the three previous contests, the last of which took place exactly two weeks ago tonight, 112-99 here at the UC. Giannis Antetokounmpo posted an impressive double-double of 29 points and 17 rebounds for the Bucks, while Chicago's Lauri Markkanen did his best to keep up with a double-double of his own (20 points/17 rebounds). Zach LaVine also had a terrific game for the Bulls with 27 points and seven assists.

Milwaukee currently sports the top record in the NBA at 45-14. They come to town on a roll, winners of four in a row and 16 of their last 18. Meanwhile the Bulls are also playing their best ball of the year, winners of three straight, and four of their last six after taking down the Boston Celtics on Saturday 126-116. With that victory Chicago has now posted 120 or more points five times this month. Both LaVine and Markkanen have been leading the way as each enjoyed career nights on Saturday, with LaVine scoring 42 and Markkanen going for 35 and 15 rebounds.

In his last five games, LaVine's averaging 26.4 points while shooting 53.9% from the field (48-for-89) and 51.7% from deep (15-for-29). The 6'5 guard is also doing a great job of finding open teammates, dishing 6.0 assists during this recent stretch.

As for Markkanen, the second-year Finn is averaging 24.2 points and 12.6 rebounds in this same five game period. The 21-year old forward has posted nine double-doubles in his last 10 games.

Saturday was a big night for the Bucks, too, as they improved to a season-high 31 games over .500 with a 140-128 win over Minnesota. It was the fifth time this season they have reached 140-points, a new franchise-record. Forward Khris Middleton led the way with 28 while Antetokounmpo added 27 and 10 rebounds. The Bucks finished the night with seven players in double figures.

Milwaukee's been doing it on both ends of the floor this season. They're the only team in the league inside the top five in both offensive (5th at 111.1) and defensive (1st at 101.8) ratings, while owning the top net rating (+9.3) overall. They've not only won 45 out of 59 games, they've won an NBA-best 33 by 10+ points, including nine by 20+, five by 30+ and one game by 40+ points.

As mentioned earlier, Antetokounmpo is having an MVP type season, averaging a career-high 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists, while shooting 58.1% from the floor. Affectionately nicknamed the “Greek Freak,” Antetokounmpo scores the majority of his points inside the paint, but this month he's suddenly become a threat from distance, connecting on 10-for-22 (45.5%) from behind the arc. However, the Bulls may have caught a break as he's listed as doubtful for the game tonight due to a creaky knee.

As a team, the Bucks are the second-highest scorers in the league at 117.0 per (Golden State scores 118.8). A lot of the damage they inflict comes from behind the arc, as they've already shattered their franchise record for most 3s made in a season. With or without Antetokounmpo, they're capable of lighting up a scoreboard, thus the Bulls are going to need to bring their best if they're going to avoid getting swept.

Someone Chicago fans know well should finally make his first active appearance as an ex-Bull tonight, Nikola Mirotic, who recently returned from a calf strain injury after being acquired from New Orleans in a three-team trade at the deadline. Mirotic, who spent his first three-plus seasons with the Bulls, is averaging 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in two games with Milwaukee.

Defensively, Chicago will definitely need to pay close attention to the 3-point arc as the Bucks attempt the second-most shots (37.6), and hit the second-most (13.2) from deep. In fact, 33.8% of their overall points scored comes from behind the arc. Thus the Bulls have to look to consistently and aggressively run Milwaukee's snipers off the bend throughout the night to force them to find another way to score.

Offensively Chicago has to make sure all five players on the floor get involved in the action. They cannot let the offense become a series of one-on-one battles. The ball will have to hop from player-to-player and from side-to-side to force Milwaukee's defense to cover a lot of ground and expend as much energy as possible. However, in doing so the Bulls also have to be smart and savvy with the ball by not attempting to force the action with risky passes that can easily ignite Milwaukee's potent offensive attack.

In order to keep pace the Bulls will need to establish themselves on the boards as well. The Bucks are the league's best rebounding team, snagging an impressive 48.9 boards per night, including a league-best 39.9 off the defensive glass. If Chicago can at least hold their own on the boards — especially on the defensive end — they'll give themselves a shot of tapping into their wealth of speed and athleticism in stampeding down the floor in a hurry to post quick and easy scores before Milwaukee can set up on defense.

Simply put the Bulls will have to have an aggressive mindset at both ends of the floor for all 48 minutes of tonight's contest. Every player has to bring energy. For this team to succeed they have to play with a hardnosed edge and be willing to leave everything out on the floor.