For the first time this season, the Chicago Bulls (7-10) are heading down I-94 North to Milwaukee to meet the Bucks (12-4) at the Fiserv Forum in a duel between longtime rivals in the Central Division. Although tonight is the opening game of a four-game season series between the Bulls and Bucks, it’s also the 260th meeting of all time. Only the Detroit Pistons have played the Bulls more times this season (273).
Both Chicago and Milwaukee achieved impressive victories last Monday. The Bulls ended a four-game losing streak by defeating the Boston Celtics 121-107 at the United Center, while the Bucks ended a four-game homestand with a 119-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. After starting the season with nine straight wins, the Bucks are back on earth and have won 3-4 in their last seven games.
As for today’s competition, here are a few things to keep in mind as the Bulls try to stay the course by beating the Bucks (7pm CST tip – NBC Sports Chicago):
The Bucks went 51-31 last year, finishing in the top three in the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight year. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo makes Milwaukee a legitimate threat to winning the NBA title this year and at least a few more in the future. Now in his 10th season, the 7-foot forward is averaging 30.1 points per game along with 11.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting .520 from the floor. Against the Blazers on Monday Antetokounmpo had game bests of 37 points, six assists and was +19 while on the ground. The only aspects of the game he doesn’t excel at are shooting from the sidelines and the free throw line. The 27-year-old has shot 9-of-41 (.220) from behind the 3-point arc and 96-of-167 (.575) from the charity streak this season. Where Antetokounmpo causes pure chaos, it’s close to the basket with an NBA lead of 18.2 points per game in the suit, as well as an NBA best of 5.4 fastbreak points per game. If the Bulls are going to give themselves a chance to counter the odds tonight, they’ll need to find a way to keep Antetokounmpo as far off the rim as possible. He’s a mere mortal on the outside, but he’s Superman when he gets in the paint and runs out in transition.
The Bucks like to spread offensively, launching 3-pointers from across the arc while Antetokounmpo looks for defensive cracks that will give him a free pass to the rim. Compared to the Bulls, five Milwaukee players have shot more than 60 3-balls while only two Chicagoans (Zach LaVine 104, Nikola Vučević 69) have attempted as many. Bucks center Brook Lopez has the itchy trigger finger with 100 attempts (.390 3FG%), followed by veteran playmaker Jrue Holliday with 77 (.325 3FG%). Chicago Public Enemy #1 Grayson Allen is the Bucks’ most consistent sniper at .419 3FG%. Allen is a nuisance on both ends of the floor, but especially when it comes to slamming down clutch shots with little time on the clock. Chicago just can’t afford to lose sight of Allen sneaking around the arch or he’ll be happily throwing daggers all night.
To overcome Milwaukee’s firepower, Chicago must focus on playing fast and physically. The Bulls must maintain their poise as the Bucks try to catch a ball handler and quickly and decisively pass the ball to an open teammate while everyone else is moving in and out of the paint. It’s absolutely vital that the Bulls don’t stand still and hope that the ball will eventually get to them. Chicago must create scoring chances by skipping the ball from player to player and side to side while looking for openings to attack the rim. For one man, the Bulls have to be ready to color in the action aggressively to force Milwaukee’s defense to step back and scramble.
The Bucks aren’t a one dimensional team as they also play really good defense. In fact, they come in at No. 1 tonight with a 105.9 defensive rating and only allow 106.9 points per game for fourth place. Overall, opponents only shoot 445% from the field and 0.353% from behind the bow.
Milwaukee also leads the league in rebounding at 49.5 per game. However, the Bulls have flexed their muscles on the glass in their last two games, overtaking opponents 97-79. Chicago needs to flex more tonight to win the battle of the boards to ignite their offense by giving them opportunities to score easy baskets in transition.
Patrick Williams is likely to take on the unenviable task of guarding Antetokounmpo. The third-year forward is one of the Bulls’ best defenders and should be up to the task. However, Chicago cannot leave Williams alone, especially when Antetokounmpo drives to the basket. It will take a village to slow him down and so the Bulls will have to do excellent communication on the defensive and turn quickly to get in the way of Antetokounmpo should he attempt the basket. Likewise, Chicago cannot afford to lose sight of the shooters stationed along the 3-point arc. The Bulls must stay alert and aggressively try to chase those shooters out of the curve, forcing the Bucks offense to reset while the shot clock runs out.
Milwaukee’s roster is highly skilled and deep, but not invincible. The Bulls can be the last team standing at the end of the night if they remain focused and aggressive at both ends of the court.