Tale of the tape: Bulls didn’t measure up even with Giannis going scoreless in fourth quarter
Will there really be other opportunities for the Bulls in this series? Will the Bucks’ Antetokounmpo allow it?
It’s never a great sign when an NBA coach reaches into Norman Dale’s playbook for the old “Hoosiers” state-championship pregame bit.
“For the guys going through this for the first time, I think they have to realize the court dimensions are still the same,” Billy Donovan said a little over an hour before Game 1 of the Bulls’ first-round series against the Bucks. “The rim’s still 10 feet. It’s still 15 feet on a free throw. They’ve got to control the things they can control with a really heightened sense of awareness and being alert.”
It’s a lesson one would hope professional players — even those making their playoff debuts — don’t actually need. Although given the almost unimaginably calamitous state of the Bulls’ shooting Sunday in a 93-86 defeat at Fiserv Forum, maybe they need even more of it.
Is it still 23 feet, 9 inches on a three-point shot? Because the Bulls shot 30 for 37 from deep. Somewhere, Jimmy Chitwood was horrified.
Here’s a thought: Before Game 2 on Wednesday, Donovan can instruct Coby White to sit on Patrick Williams’ shoulders and take a tape measure to Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world.
“See?” Donovan can say. “I told you guys he was only 6-11.”
Antetokounmpo wasn’t in his finest form in Game 1, and the Bulls nearly took advantage. Imagine if you’d told the Bulls they would go into the fourth quarter down only three points and then allow one of the league’s best offensive teams only 19 points in the final frame — with Antetokounmpo, who got into serious foul trouble, going scoreless. Donovan and his players would have to assume that meant they’d be basking in a much-needed “W.”
Alas, the Bulls scored all of 15 themselves in the fourth. DeMar DeRozan forgot all about being the NBA’s Mr. Fourth Quarter. Zach LaVine, one of those playoff first-timers, couldn’t come up with answers. Nikola Vucevic searched for his shot; getting it to drop was another matter entirely. On a night when Williams and some Bulls role players were too wide-eyed to bring anything helpful at the offensive end, it was an ugly, dispiriting way to go out.
“I’m not here to sit here tonight and say we deserved to win the game or I thought we would,” Donovan said. “We had our opportunity and came up a little bit short.”
The question now: Will there really be other opportunities for the Bulls in this series? Will Antetokounmpo allow it? Because even at less than his best, Antetokounmpo, who scored 27 and grabbed 16 rebounds, was a plus-19 in his 33 minutes, the most decisive statistic of the night. And he hasn’t even gotten lathered up yet.
Both teams were concerned about finding an early offensive rhythm after several days off while the play-in tournament was being contested, but Antetokounmpo had an MVP start, rebounding the Bulls’ first three misses and scoring five points at the other end as the Bucks shot out to a 9-0 lead.
The Bulls had runs of 7-0 in the second quarter and 11-0 in the third quarter with Antetokounmpo on the bench. With 2:52 left in the third, they led 69-64 and the sweet stench of an upset came wafting in. But the sensational big man returned to the action, drove and dunked with his left hand and then drove again for an acrobatic three-point play. It was a 10-2 Bucks answer and the last offensive spurt of the game for either team.
“There were obviously so many reasons why the game was ugly,” Antetokounmpo said. “We weren’t able to make open shots, weren’t able to get to our spots. Not just for us, but both teams. Not playing a game for a couple of days gets you out of your rhythm. But, at the end of the day, a win is a win. And we didn’t want to get down 1-0.”
We must point out here: “Ugly” is relative. If you’re the Bulls, it’s not having a single postseason win in the last five years. If you’re the Bucks, it’s not looking quite like a world champion wants to in Game 1 of its title defense.
Until Sunday, the last playoff game between these teams ended with the Bulls eliminating the Bucks 120-66 in the first round in 2015. That was the Bucks’ most lopsided playoff loss ever and came within four points of the NBA postseason record for margin of defeat. That’s what ugly once was in Milwaukee, when Antetokounmpo was still all of 20 years old.
“Hopefully on Wednesday,” he said, referring to Game 2, “we can play good basketball.”
That’s something the Bulls don’t want to have to try to measure up against.