Bulls finally eliminate Bucks in historic victory

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By Sam Smith | 5.01.2015 | 9:25 a.m. CT

The Bulls Thursday may have been the ones more stunned–if also wondering where that has been–than the Milwaukee Bucks with the Bulls incredible 120-66 victory to close out the first round playoff series 4-2.

The Bulls now open the conference semifinals in Cleveland 6 p.m. Monday.

The Bulls assured that with one of the most commanding and dominant playoff victories in the history of the NBA. Not only did the Bulls lead by double digits for the last 42 minutes of the game, but they set their franchise record for playoff victory margin, sent the Bucks to their biggest loss in franchise history in regular season or playoffs, produced the largest series clinching margin of victory in NBA history and set a record for not allowing any Bucks player to even score in double figures.

This seemed less an NBA playoff game than one of those Dream Team games against Angola or Lithuania.

All five Bulls starters scored in double figures led by Mike Dunleavy with 20 points as the Bulls set a franchise playoff record with 15 three pointers. The Bulls’ 32-point halftime lead was the largest in franchise playoff history. The Bulls’ lead was well above 40 points most of the third quarter and extended even in the fourth quarter after a brutal Bucks meltdown of technical and flagrant fouls and an ejection.

Dead deer splayed across the hoods of pickups in Wisconsin hunting season looked livelier and more competitive than these Bucks who a few days ago looked like a threat to rebound from a 0-3 playoff deficit. They seemed to the heavily favored Bulls like pesky flies that just would not go away. So the Bulls finally had enough and dropped a nuclear device on them.

Taj Gibson sat on the bench to open the game and watched in fascination the starters, who’d been outscored in four of the previous five starts, get out running through the set play stop signs for an 8-0 lead, then 17-6 and 22-8 when coach Tom Thibodeau made his first substitution.

“The way we started that game out it was like, ‘Who are we today?’” said Gibson. “I was like, ‘Where has this been?’ You can tell guys had that mentality of being sick and tired of seeing the same team over and over, the sense of wanting to get it over with and move on. That’s a talented young team. Our starters responded the right way and everybody keyed in and got the job done.”

The Bucks oddly were beaten already, so distracted by a Dunleavy non call on a Michael Carter-Williams drive a minute into the game that they began a series of retaliations that led to the ejection of Giannis Antetokounmpo early in the second quarter on a flying body block into Dunleavy and O.J. Mayo and Carter-Williams with technicals. The young Bucks had been having fun, but Thursday they began to learn about the playoffs as the Bulls effectively began it six games in.

“This wasn’t easy the way they played us,” said Joakim Noah with 11 points and 10 rebounds in his most aggressive offensive game of the series. “They have a lot of players who can switch the pick and roll. Which wasn’t something we were used to all year. I felt like overall our edge was great start to finish; our defense was tough from the get. Everybody really stepped up, everyone really played well.

“I think we needed it,” said Noah. “We were a team that dealt with a lot of injuries, especially coming into the playoffs. I think this series definitely helped us get our edge right and get focused for what’s coming.”

Dunleavy appeared to push down Carter-Williams on a drive with the Bulls ahead 5-0. It really didn’t seem like much despite the Bucks players and even local media whining about suspensions and fines. It’s the playoffs! as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes to remind everyone. Later Dunleavy had a similar push on Antetokounmpo, who then ran the other way and jumped into Dunleavy as he was making a three to make it 61-28 Bulls with 1:34 left in the second quarter. Yup, they were done thinking about a comeback.

“He kind of got under our guys’ skins,” said Bucks center Zaza Pachulia. “Especially he picked the young guys; he picked the right guys. And unfortunately our guys responded and we got hurt. But they’re going to learn from it.”

It was a credit to Thibodeau that he got back to featuring Dunleavy after little use in Game 5 and made several other key adjustments. Thibodeau piled it on rotating Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler back in early, and they both were terrific, Butler especially with his promise to lead and bringing his physical play to the game.

On one occasion, O.J. Mayo ran off the bench during a timeout to confront Butler when Butler was swatting away practice shots as Kevin Garnett does. Technical for Mayo. Thibodeau also went back to veteran Kirk Hinrich, and he responded with an active, physical game, helping force at least a half dozen turnovers with the sort of double teaming, helping and recovering the Bucks had upset the Bulls with in previous games. Hinrich was ducking in on John Henson, who was held to just three shots and just two rebounds after 10 alone in the fourth quarter of Game 5. The Bulls were strong with the ball this time, both rebounding and not falling for the Bucks reach in and slaps. The helping and doubling and activity forced 18 turnovers the Bulls turned into 23 points as the previously cautious Bulls had a 22-5 edge in fast break points. The Bulls had a 50-20 margin in points in the paint after the Bucks won that in every game but the first. You went to the basket, you were taking a hit. The Bucks’ kids didn’t like their uniforms being ruffled.

Carter-Williams was one of six for three points; Thibodeau also switched Butler to Khris Middleton and the Bucks’ leading scorer had just six points. For most of the series, Thibodeau had Butler on Antetokounmpo because Thibodeau doesn’t like cross matching for defensive purposes. But the Bucks were taking advantage of Dunleavy with the quicker Middleton. Butler’s physical play sent Middleton far outside and the Bulls simply stayed off the poor shooting Antetokounmpo.

Thibodeau also went back more extensively to Gibson, who blew up the Bucks efforts to have the smaller Jared Dudley on him with more of that rotation likely against the Cavs as Thibodeau turned back to the veterans and didn’t much play Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic until the Bulls led by 40 in the fourth quarter.

It seemed laughable the Bucks players were so upset by a few taps from Dunleavy. Carter-Williams complained to local media afterward he would now have to go to the dentist because of Dunleavy.

Dunleavy is one of the unpretentious tougher guys, sort of annoying in the John Stockton mold who’ll deliver a hard pick or blow. Players then turn to see who it was and often seem frustrated it’s a guy who doesn’t look formidable. You’ll remember DeMarcus Cousins calling Dunleavy a clown for his play and Dunleavy has had some run ins with former teammates on the Pacers and Bucks. He’s not the sort to back down and it served the Bulls well in more than distracting Carter-Williams. It was a statement as well as a measure of their play.

“I don’t recall that,” Dunleavy said when a Milwaukee reporter began the post game media session accusing Dunleavy of dirty play. “I’m sure they’ll look at a bunch of stuff; we’ll see. It seemed like we came out and our pressure on the ball was great. We hit the glass, we hit shots. We did everything we wanted to do. This is the game we were looking for in the series and it was a nice way to close it out.

“We came out on their home court and put it on them,” noted Dunleavy. “That’s frustrating for anybody who has been there before. I understand that. Things happen. Sometimes you have to take a hard foul; we’ve all been there. There’s a time and place for it; maybe that could have changed the momentum for them. It’s part of basketball.”

Yes, man up! Mike Dunleavy has to tell you that?

It was playoff basketball, and the Bulls finally showed up for it. It was all around and in many forms, Noah up on the bench, pacing and shouting instructions when he went out of the game and then yelling at Gibson to back off and get down court on defense when Gibson started to complain about a non call. There was Snell screaming for someone to help up Gibson after he was knocked down under the basket on a drive with the players on the floor distracted. There was Rose signaling exuberantly laying on the floor after taking a charge in the third quarter with the Bulls ahead by 46. Rose would then leave for the game and head right for the exercise bicycle he rode when out. Yes, he was ready to return.

When the Bucks tried to trap Rose, he fired the ball quickly and it moved to the corner for a three. He had 15 points and seven assists and the Bulls ran.

“It’s kind of hard sometimes when you are pushing and you’re the only one running down,” said Rose. “Talking to my teammates, getting everybody to run and I’m passing the ball up. When you pass the ball up to someone ahead I can fill in the other side. They can do whatever they want to do (and if there’s no shot) the ball comes back to me with a live dribble; it’s kind of hard defending.”

It had been missing; it’s no coincidence the Bulls defended better with an offensive flow that got them moving.

Butler had 16 points and smothering defense as promised. He and Rose combined on five three pointers and Dunleavy added four.

“I got some good looks to start and they went down for me as a result of good ball movement,” said Dunleavy. “Everybody was touching the ball and sharing. That’s my job when the ball gets swung around to me, knock down shots and I was able to do that. I felt everybody was engaged from the get go. The starters really understood how to attack these guys for the first time all series and we did that.”

Aaron Brooks made two of three threes as Thibodeau also went back to him for his energy and feisty play and it was effective. And needed with a Bulls team that had been shocked and potentially facing the shame of the first ever NBA team to lose a playoff series after leading 3-0.

“There was a lot of stuff that went on,” noted Noah “Guys got tangled up a bunch. In the heat of battle guys get upset about stuff, especially when you are losing by a lot. No big deal; happens. We’re moving on. Everybody was locked in. It was great to be a part of. We had a lot of things going for us, our edge, our focus, we hit shots. Our defense we were very vocal, everybody. Pooh (Rose) picked up full court and overall we had good attitude and good energy; we didn’t complain or anything and that was big. This was big for us. We had to do a lot of soul searching the last couple of days.”

Because there’s probably not much time left for this group, and after a season of injuries and controversies about playing time, the Bulls went into this series as healthy as they’ve been in the playoffs in five years. They’re not the favorites, but they are good enough to win. They understood. Gibson said Rose emphasized that in a talk to the team as the playoffs began.

“Like Derrick said, ‘Put away the poison. Take away everything, your friends, your family, the girls. You have to put all that stuff away and focus on the team.’ He said before the first game; “Right now is the time; it’s about us. Everybody put away your poison. If it’s girls, if it’s going out, staying up late, eating, bad habits, put all that stuff away and focus on the team and sharpen up.’”

The message perhaps took a bit of time, but it’s certainly not too late.

Pau Gasol had 19 points and eight rebounds, but as the only Bull with championship rings he liked what he saw.

“The benefit is we understand what it takes to win playoff games better now,” said Gasol “We finally got off to a good start and set the tone really well. That’s something we needed to do that didn’t happen before throughout the series. Now we have to keep the same edge, the same intensity, the same mindset, the same approach we brought tonight to the next series.”

Not too overconfident yet, LeBron.