Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Bucks (10.07.19)

Tonight, the Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks tip-off the 2019-20 preseason at the United Center.

Last season the Bucks stepped to the forefront in becoming one of the NBA's elite teams, posting a league-leading 60 victories, thanks largely to 2018-19 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Affectionally dubbed "The Greek Freak," Antetokounmpo is unquestionably one of the most gifted athletes on the planet. The versatile 6'11, 24-year old sported career-best averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting a blistering 57.8% from the field. Not only is he a top offensive player (Antetokounmpo led all of basketball with a 30.9 Player Efficiency Rating), the three-time All-Star is also a defensive game-changer, capable of employing suffocating pressure against all five positions.

Last season was Coach Mike Budenholzer's first at the helm in Milwaukee. "Coach Bud's" pace and space offense unlocked Antetokounmpo's boundless playmaking talents. The veteran bench boss insists his teams get out on the break early and often while employing plenty of crisp movement between several long-range snipers stationed all around the 3-point arc. At a minimum Chicago will need to match Milwaukee's desire to play fast by equally running whenever they coral a loose ball and/or snag a defensive rebound. This should be a terrific opportunity for the Bulls' two draft picks from this past June, point guard Coby White, and center Daniel Gafford, as well as lead guard Zach LaVine, who is as good as anyone in the NBA when it comes to fast play and flying high to the iron, to showcase their athleticism.

Defensively the Bulls will need to demonstrate a willingness to hold their ground against any Buck choosing to streak down to the other end of the floor in search of glory — especially Antetokounmpo. After the Bucks jumped to a 2-0 series lead in last year's Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto, the Raptors upped their defensive intensity by clogging the paint to force Antetokounmpo to live outside far from the rim where his superpowers are more easily kept in check. Thanks to this adjustment Toronto went on to win four straight and eliminate Milwaukee from the playoffs.

Overall Chicago will need to show up this evening with a hardnosed mindset and look to make life unpleasant for their neighbors from the north with plenty of physical and intimidating play up and down the hardwood.

As spectacular as Antetokounmpo is, he still must get help from several talented teammates, each of whom has proven now and again to be able to light up scoreboards all by themselves. One such partner in crime is Brook Lopez, a one-time back-to-the-basket big man who has morphed into a serious outside shooting threat the last few seasons. Last year "Bropez" connected on an impressive 36.5% of long-range attempts. His unique marksmanship behind the arc often proves invaluable in opening driving lanes to the hoop for Antetokounmpo to exploit.

Another capable Milwaukee threat is small forward Khris Middleton who earned his first All-Star nod last year. The 28-year old, 6-year veteran inked a max deal over the summer after putting up a strong line of 18.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists as the Bucks' second scoring option.

Milwaukee also added a couple of former Bulls fan favorites in Kyle Korver and Robin Lopez as free agents, as well as gritty veteran guard Wes Matthews. This will be Korver's 19th NBA campaign. He comes in as the league's fourth all-time three-point-shot maker with a lifetime mark of 42.9% from downtown. Robin Lopez, who for the last three seasons manned the middle for the Bulls, will now back-up his twin, while Matthews, who is playing for his fourth team in less than a year after signing a veterans' minimum deal with Milwaukee, will likely start at shooting guard. The former Marquette Golden Eagle is coming off a season where he averaged 12.2 points per game and shot 37.2% from the 3-point line on 5.8 attempts a night last season.

Since tonight's contest is the first exhibition tip for both squads, chances are starters and top reserves will not log a great deal of action. However, both teams will want to look at as many player combinations as possible to see how new teammates mesh. With only five preseason games on the docket, teams will likely look to increase playing time for their starters and rotation regulars more and more going forward.