The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are reeling and ailing.
The Bulls, losers of 15 of their last 23 games since All-Star break and swept 4-0 by the Bucks this season in losing 16 of the last 17 between the teams, are rocking and rolling with now potential home court advantage in the first-round playoff series after Wednesday’s 114-110 victory in Milwaukee.
Al Michaels, do you believe in miracles?
“We had a long season, a lot of adversity,” agreed Alex Caruso, who was part of that with six weeks off from a flagrant foul by Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen. “It was almost a little bit of (saying). ‘Start the playoffs already.’ We were in a hole, but we got our spirit back.
We talked to each other about the opportunity we had in front of us: It’s the playoffs! You’ve got to get up and play, and if not you shouldn’t play. It comes with the territory. So you’re going to do the things it takes to win.”
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The Bulls did most of those things in Game 1 in narrowly losing after taking a third quarter lead and toggling with Milwaukee though most of the fourth Sunday before falling back. There was no such retreat Wednesday in Game 2 as the Bulls dominated from a 9-0 start, led pretty much all game and as much as 18 in the third quarter, and then never flinched as the Bucks made one, last effort late.
“Go to game 3,” said Caruso. “We have to win three more times, they have to try to win three more times. Lot more games to play.”
Though now after a career playoff-high 41 points from DeMar DeRozan and another superb effort from Nikola Vucevic with 24 points and 13 rebounds, it all doesn’t look so daunting. Especially because it’s now the Bucks suddenly facing the adversity. After getting going late with five of seven threes, Bucks high scoring forward Khris Middleton suffered an apparent sprained MCL knee injury that could keep him out the rest of the series.
Earlier, Bobby Portis left with an eye abrasion after being elbowed by Tristan Thompson and missed the second half. And the Bucks said vital reserve George Hill apparently will miss the rest of the series with an abdominal injury.
Giannis Antetokounmpo almost willed the Bucks back with 33 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. And Brook Lopez added 25 points. But Jrue Holiday was slowed again, now with 10 turnovers in the two games, and the Bucks bench virtually disappeared with eight combined points on two of 13 shooting.
Meanwhile, the Bulls got yeoman
work from Patrick Williams with 10 points and nine rebounds, 20 efficient points from Zach LaVine and the most impactful nine points and 10 rebounds from the relentless Caruso.
“I think coming out of the All-Star break and the teams we played and the way we played and especially the last four home games, that was really not us at all,” admitted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “It was disappointing the way we played and we felt like we were better. I think coming out, having that six days I think our guys worked really hard to understand that (playoff) mentality.
“Maybe playing against some of these higher level teams at the end of the year maybe helped us grow, hardened us, helped us get better, helped us to have that kind of mentality that we have to move onto the the next play,” Donovan added.
“Because I think at times this year when we played against good teams and it started to go a little bit the other way, we didn’t have enough in us to get it going back in our direction. We have to be able to do that, especially in the playoffs because teams are too good and too talented and especially this team with such continuity. You know they are going to respond. You know they are going to fight back and they did. And we had to make some plays.”
And what was impressive for the Bulls were they made those plays just about every time in Game 2.
It was a shocking shocking start with Bucks turnovers on their first three possessions, which sort of announced for the Bulls that a different kind of team was here compared to the one the Bucks toyed with all regular season.
“I think our approach is very different going into the playoffs,” said Vucevic. “We obviously understood we had a bad stretch to end the season, and we came in after a day off and we talked about what we didn’t do well and what we needed to do to have a chance going forward.
I thought we bought into it and I think we were able to put that behind us and come into the series and just play. We also understood, especially the older guys, that whatever happened in the regular season it doesn’t matter anymore at this point. You just have to focus on the series and go one game at a time.
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“Obviously, Game 1 was a tough game; we came up short,” noted Vucevic. “But tonight was another opportunity. Every game in the playoffs is a new opportunity regardless of what happened before. You can’t think about it; you have to move on and play better. And I felt that’s what we did tonight.”
The Bulls did the way they closed off the lane to make it so difficult for Antetokounmpo as he added three more turnovers to his five from Game 1.
Their defensive help on Giannis in the lane was strong and quick, and then they hustled back to close out on the Bucks shooters, who again went awry from three. The Bulls primarily stayed with their starters, and the effort was inspiring.
The Bucks did close within 29-28 after the first quarter, but the Bulls opened up a 63-49 halftime lead thanks to a smothering run of defense led by Caruso late in the second quarter to force multiple turnovers. The Bucks made that inevitable run midway in the third quarter, a 15-2 here-they-come-again that in recent weeks has seen the Bulls wilting like a rose planted in Chicago in February.
“We’re up 16, 18 and they come storming back and cut it to (three); you have to deal with that,” reminded Donovan. “There are going to be the swings and the communication was great and in the huddle it was, ‘We know they’re going to make a run; now it’s time for us to respond. We’ve got to respond.’ And we did.
We got the lead back up and that’s what you’ve got to be able to do. Guys like Vooch and DeMar and Zach, these veteran guys, they’ve played a lot of basketball and they know that in the league there’s going to be these swings. Those guys’ poise, their leadership and their communication was really good. That was the talk, that we’ve got to move to the next play, the next situation.
“A lot of the good teams in the league understand the swings in the game and don’t get emotionally wrapped up and are able to focus on the next possession and go out there and play,” said Donovan.
“I think maybe we’ve learned some of that stuff with some of the teams we’ve played in April. And coming out of the All-Star break as challenging as our schedule was, we had to learn some of those things.”
Perhaps lesson well learned if also difficult to endure at the time.
The Bucks with that late third quarter run made it 81-78. And we’ve seen this show before. But there was a 6-0 Bulls close on a Vucevic slam on a Caruso pass and a DeRozan score and free throws.
And then to start the fourth quarter, it was nine straight Bulls points for a 96-80 Bulls lead, DeRozan right in the middle of everything with a steal on a Giannis shot to start and then a pair of baskets between a Vucevic three and another score.
“I looked at all my missed shots from Game 1,” said DeRozan, who had declared no way was it going to be another six of 25. “I was in here last night (Fiserv Forum) shooting, just getting my rhythm. I got to my spots and understanding I never let a miss deter me from taking my next shot and being aggressive; I knew it wasn’t going to happen (again).
“It doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season,” DeRozan agreed if not helping season ticket sales people. “It’s a brand new start, brand new mindset. You could see that in all the guys. It didn’t matter if we lost 20 times to those guys. This is a new opportunity for us to go out and compete, and we have to take advantage of it.”
The Bucks got some momentum in the fourth quarter with a successful challenge on a Holiday block on DeRozan that was first called a foul. But then with Antetoukounmpo crashing down the lane repeatedly, it looked like the Bucks might produce the magic trick of victory, drawing within 112-109 after two Lopez free throws with 56.4 seconds left.
But then it was the Bulls with the spirit and veteran savvy as Caruso first and then Vucevic with a tip out got offensive rebounds that led to a DeRozan score, appropriately enough over Giannis to effectively clinch the game with 22.3 seconds left.
“The shot making was obviously much better, especially our poise as well, especially the end of the game,” said Vucevic. “It was a little bit of a scramble mode (in that possession) and once we shot the ball I saw an opportunity at the rim trying to get the rebound. I think it was Giannis with me, and I couldn’t get the ball. So I just tried to tip it out, a broken play and an opportunity for us.”
Which it really is now with the next two games in Chicago.
“I expect a very loud United Center,” said Vucevic. “Bulls fans are hungry for some playoff games. They’ve been great with us all season long, so I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the playoffs. We’re looking forward to it and are going to try to use that energy and feed off it, and hopefully we can play well. We as players have to focus on a game plan and do our part, and obviously the fans are going to be huge and it’s going to be exciting. We can’t wait.”