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By Sam Smith | 4.18.2015 | 9:00 a.m. CT
Barack Obama hasn’t been the only president who had confidence in the Bulls against Milwaukee. After all, you know Harry Truman famously said, “The Buck stops here.”
When the Bulls open their 2015 playoffs Saturday in the United Center against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls must try to slow the game. This isn’t a time for making a fast Buck, obviously considering their youth. The Bulls figure to get physical, get some bang for their Buck. And get out and run when they have the chance and pass the Buck. For the Bulls, it’s imperative to get out of the first round and buck that trend.
Perhaps I need to be taking this a bit more seriously. So here’s a look at the matchups:
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs Michael Carter-Williams
There’s always concern with Rose’s health, especially with a sore knee in the final regular season game. But the Bulls and Rose have pronounced him fit for the opener, his first playoff game since 2012. Rose is a former league MVP, though coming off a third knee surgery. However, he’s shown speed and resourcefulness since his return last week. Clearly, the Bulls’ hopes to have a long playoff run rest on his health and his production. Rose has fared poorly against the Bucks this season, though he never played against Carter-Williams. He had three points on 0-3 shooting in November, and then Rose was 1-13 (1-16 for the season vs Milwaukee) for eight points in the Bulls win. It was after that game his meniscus tear was discovered and Rose didn’t play again until last week. The Bucks’ defense loads to the ball, which means they’ll probably try to trap Rose with their athletic defenders and he’ll have to look to move the ball. Carter-Williams is the defending Rookie of the Year. So it was a surprise when the 76ers traded him as the Bucks also moved their leading scorer, Brandon Knight, to Phoenix. It was more a move for the future to give the Bucks an athletic and long armed perimeter to switch pick and rolls and trap. Carter-Williams is a poor shooter. But in the Bucks’ only win over the Bulls this season earlier this month he was the pivotal player. He posted up the smaller Aaron Brooks for easy points and then moved the ball for threes when the Bulls adjusted and tried to help. He should not be able to repeat that tactic against the stronger Rose. Though Carter-Williams is a good rebounder and Rose will have to be aware to keep him off the offensive boards and not leak out for potential breaks. In that April game, the Bucks had 20 offensive rebounds while the Bulls committed 22 turnovers, which is Milwaukee’s formula to victory.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler vs Khris Middleton
Middleton may be the Bucks’ most important perimeter player because he can shoot. He shoots about 40 percent on threes; his perimeter partners, Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo, each shoot about 16 percent. So it will be vital for Butler to stay with Middleton, get over screens and play him physically. Though Butler is a good defender, he tends to lose his man at times trying to play the lanes for steals and run outs. More discipline is required against Middleton because the Bucks have so few other perimeter options among their starters. Middleton has been a great story, a most improved along with Butler, who likely will win the award for becoming an All-Star and 20-point average scorer for the first time in his career. Middleton’s 13.4 per game average is actually the highest among the Bucks who have been with the team all season. Butler, meanwhile, has given the Bulls their first offensive Big Three perhaps ever along with Rose and Gasol. They combined to average about 56 points per game compared with the Bucks three top scorers at about 40 per game.
Small Forward: Mike Dunleavy vs Giannis Antetokounmpo
This is probably the toughest matchup for the Bulls, though Antetokounmpo isn’t at his best in the half court. The Bucks’ game, which they’ve been good at, is to disrupt the offense, get steals at which they led the league most of the season and score in transition. The Bulls with their unselfish players tend to overpass at times or try to make the difficult pass, which results in turnovers. The Bulls have had a tendency to be a high turnover team late this season, which would play to the Bucks’ strength. Dunleavy is excellent at spacing the court and can get open looks the way Antetokounmpo will try to play the lanes and get steals. But he has such long arms and quick moves that he’ll surprise passers with how quickly he can get to the ball. The Bulls need to be aware of his speed and length. Antetokounmpo has improved playing off the dribble, though it’s not a priority for him. He can make it tough with his quickness for Dunleavy, who will need help defending him.
Power Forward: Joakim Noah vs Ersan Ilyasova
These are the sorts of matchups that have bedeviled Noah all season. He sat out the last few games, though it seems more for rest and recovery than any current issue. The problem Noah has had all season in agreeing to accommodate Gasol and switch positions to power forward is when and how to help. Or whether he should. It’s been natural for Noah to be a help defender and switch pick and rolls, which has been the strength of the Bulls defense. That defense isn’t as good because Noah isn’t there to do that any longer. The Bulls play the pick and roll soft in the middle now because of Gasol, who doesn’t blitz and stunt and recover like Noah did. It’s given guards more openings inside, though the Bulls have made up for it with it with improved offense. Thus Noah has a tendency to want to help as the guard penetrates. But that’s left the stretch power forward open if he’s a shooter, like Ilyasova. Ilyasova didn’t have a defensive rebound when the Bucks beat the Bulls in April, but he made a trio of crucial threes as Noah wandered off him. Ilyasova also made three three pointers in the February game and in 66 minutes in those two games has shot two free throws. So the Bulls should know where he plays. The Bucks aren’t a good rebounding team, and Noah did have 16 rebounds in that Bulls win in February. But overall he hasn’t rebounded well against the Bucks and in 86 minutes in three games against the Bucks, Noah has five field goals as he hasn’t been able to get involved in the offense against their switching and defensive pressuring. The Bulls otherwise have enough rebounding against Milwaukee. He and Butler will have to stay close on perimeter defense. The season has been a struggle for Noah with physical issues and a changing role not to his liking or strengths. But he remains the team’s emotional and motivational leader and his enthusiasm and aggressiveness is vital.
Center: Pau Gasol vs Zaza Pachulia
Gasol had his career best game against the Bucks with 46 points and 18 rebounds in January, and after that the Bucks basically committed to double teaming and keeping the ball out of his hands the last two games. The Bulls need better ball movement when they do that and not try to force the ball through Gasol too much if the openings are not there. Perhaps get him the ball more on the move than in half court stagnant sets. Gasol has averaged about a dozen rebounds against the Bucks as they haven’t been able to deal with his size and length. Pachulia has had some success the last game getting low on Gasol. Smaller, more physical defenders like to pressure Gasol in the lower body to ride him out of the post as he doesn’t have a strong base. The Bucks will attempt to do that to keep Gasol off balance, though Gasol is adept making jump shots. Pachulia also will step outside to shoot jump shots and Gasol generally doesn’t chase much to the perimeter. The Bucks need Pachulia’s mid range game to be effective.
The Bulls’ bench is one of the best and strongest in the league, especially with the development of Nikola Mirotic. It didn’t sound like Kirk Hinrich would play in Game 1 after he didn’t practice Friday. But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau prefers an eight-player rotation for the playoffs. Mirotic has just been so good he’s forced his way into the rotation. The question is where Mirotic will play as he’s more effective as a power forward against slower big men. But the Bulls front line seems in good shape, though there is still a question with Taj Gibson after a recurrence of a shoulder problem in the final regular season game. Brooks suffered against Carter-Williams in the April game, but Rose mostly will play Carter-Williams. Jerryd Bayless off the Bucks bench is more a shooter. The Bucks bench is a strength and at times more effective than their starters because of their scoring. They have shooting in O.J. Mayo and Jared Dudley. Tony Snell has had some success against them, but it’s uncertain if he will play. Thibodeau tends to rely on Jimmy Butler heavily in the playoffs. The Bucks go even smaller off the bench, which will require Gibson to venture outside the paint as well, which like Noah isn’t a strength for him. The Bulls will rely on their size against the Bucks’ bench shooters, who are more reliable from the perimeter than their starters.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs Jason Kidd
In many respects, Kidd has had a better season with the 26-game turnaround for the Bucks, one of the better coaching stories of the season. Kidd is very good. He hasn’t been a personal favorite of many during his playing career, ironically for his poor relations with many coaches. But he’s got an excellent and instinctive basketball mind from his career as one of the best lead guards in NBA history. He’s unlike many coaches because he thinks so fast from his point guard playing experience. Even his spilled water trick in Brooklyn indicated him thinking ahead. He bolloxed the Bulls in the April game with mismatches and counters that were a step ahead of the Bulls. And he has won a playoff series as a coach with the Nets last season. But no one prepares like Thibodeau for a playoff series and has had as much experience in these circumstances going back to being an assistant on a Knicks team in 1999 that came from eighth to get to the Finals. Though Thibodeau will have to be sharp to respond to Kidd.
The Bulls have too much to lose this series. It’s not like the Bucks don’t care or won’t try, but their season was made making the playoffs. Their turnaround without Jabari Parker has been one of the best stories in the league. The playoffs generally require a scorer who can make a play and they lack that, though the Atlanta Hawks do as well. And they’re very good. The Bucks can be disruptive and opportunistic, though they’ll struggle to score if you ramp up the defense. The Bulls haven’t been able to as much this season and have generally been in low scoring games with the Bucks this season, failing to break 95 points in any game. This with the Bulls averaging more than 100 for the season. The Bulls held the Bucks under 90 twice and once to 71. The Bulls will need to be patient, disciplined and physical. Keeping turnovers down probably is the key to the series for the Bulls and provoking them is vital for the Bucks’ chances.
Pick: Bulls in 5