Bulls end regular season with win; now it’s deer season
With Milwaukee losing and Boston winning on Sunday, the Bulls and Bucks were locked into a first-round playoff series, which starts next weekend in the house of the defending NBA champions.
MINNEAPOLIS — DeMar DeRozan wanted to put some thought into the question.
“Who is the most underrated player?’’ he said recently. “In today’s game, right? Oh, Jrue Holiday. As good as people think he is, he’s even better.’’
And Holiday is arguably the third option on the Bucks, whom the Bulls will face in the first round of the playoffs.
Good luck, Bulls.
With a blowout victory by the Celtics and a loss by the Bucks, who rested most of their important rotation players against the Cavaliers, the defending NBA champions finished as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, setting up the showdown with the Bulls.
The Bulls’ 124-120 victory against the Timberwolves had no effect on the seedings in either conference, and both teams played it that way, resting most of their significant players. But it was still nice to see second-year forward Patrick Williams score a career-high 35 points.
“We’re made up of talented players,’’ Williams said. “Just taking that confidence in yourself into the playoffs and just knowing you can make plays, know what you bring to this team. That is the building block of what we can be in the playoffs.’’
The win gave the Bulls a 46-36 final record, which was a huge jump from last season’s 31-41 mark, but that improvement didn’t tell the entire story, specifically how the Bulls fared against the NBA’s elite, including the Bucks.
Not only did the Bulls go 1-14 against the top four teams in the East, but they were swept by Milwaukee in their four meetings, including a 127-106 beatdown last week at the United Center.
The issues against all-world forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, however, go beyond this season. Antetokounmpo has won 13 straight against the Bulls, and Milwaukee has won 16 of its last 17.
The last time the teams met in the playoffs came in 2014-15, which was the last stand for the Tom Thibodeau Bulls, who won the series 4-2, led by Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose.
Antetokounmpo was just starting to emerge that season and wasn’t a dominant player yet. And while few opposing teams have had an answer for him in recent seasons, the Bulls lack a true matchup to throw his way.
In the four games against the Bulls, the “Greek Freak’’ averaged 26.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 55.7% from the field. That includes last week’s blowout in which Antetokounmpo only played 24 minutes.
“We have to get that mindset and come in with that ‘dawg’ mentality,’’ Zach LaVine said of the upcoming series. “We’ve got a lot of days to prepare. Obviously, we’re going against the defending champs. I think it’s just a great opportunity.’’
Nikola Vucevic, LaVine and DeRozan sat out Sunday’s season finale mostly for resting purposes. The real concern coach Billy Donovan had was for LaVine (left knee) and Alex Caruso (back).
Neither was in danger of missing the first-round series, but Donovan was more worried about what he can get from them in an important practice week leading up to that series. The medical staff has been mapping out a plan, but it’s still wait-and-see.
“Maybe they’ll have days off or maybe they’ll just do parts of practice, but certainly the health of those guys is the most important thing,’’ Donovan said.