Stay close, pull it out late? That’s hardly a recipe for Bulls success against Bucks
The Bulls’ only chance might be to get out fast and desperately try to hang on to a lead. Late in games is when champions snuff out upstarts’ sweet little dreams.
One thing Proviso East guard Jevon Carter was sure of as he packed his bags for his freshman year at West Virginia in 2014: Though he was smaller than most, he played harder than anybody.
It had been at the heart of his ascent from neighborhood nobody to college prospect. It was why famously tough Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins had wanted him. Maybe it was going to be his ticket to the NBA someday.
Then Carter got to campus and met ‘‘the treadmill.’’ Whatever Carter had known about playing hard before that suddenly could fit inside a thimble.
‘‘Get on it,’’ Huggins said.
Carter would become a two-time national defensive player of the year in part because of that treadmill. If he was going to play for Huggins, he was going to have to hop aboard — while it already was spinning furiously at 15 mph — and sprint for 45 seconds at a time.
Players would be scared. Some of them would crash from the machine to the floor. Huggins would shrug his bearlike shoulders. It’s why he’s going into the Naismith Hall of Fame later this year, one supposes, and certainly has something to do with why Carter now plays for the world champion Bucks.
But there was another influence on Carter’s development back then, a key to his hard-playing, defensive-oriented rise that had nothing to do with a Chicago background, a treadmill, Huggins or West Virginia’s hoops culture. It was the NBA guard — not a superstar, but a bad man — Carter watched on video and modeled his own approach after.
‘‘I’ve been watching Jrue for a long time,’’ Carter told reporters as the Bucks and Bulls prepared for Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.
That’s Jrue Holiday, as though you needed to be told. The Bucks’ perimeter pit bull who soon might be at the center of Bulls stars Zach LaVine’s and DeMar DeRozan’s nightmares.
Holiday was a huge reason the Bulls shot 21.4% from the field — and 1-for-12 from behind the three-point arc — in the fourth quarter of a 93-86 loss in Game 1.
‘‘We were OK,’’ Holiday said of that defensive effort. ‘‘I think we can improve.’’
So much of the chatter about this series spinning out of Game 1 is missing the point. Yes, the Bulls had a chance to steal a road victory in a series the Bucks are expected to win handily. Yes, LaVine and especially DeRozan are a dangerous duo late in games because each can create his own shot and likes the big moment. Yes, it was a good sign that big man Nikola Vucevic wanted the ball, too, even though his jumpers weren’t falling, either.
‘‘I guarantee you that me, Zach and [Vucevic] aren’t going to miss that many shots again,’’ DeRozan said, as though the opposition didn’t have a heck of a lot to do with it.
But if there’s one thing these Bucks know how to do, it’s close out a playoff game. The Bulls — still looking for their first playoff victory in five years — are crazy if they think all they really need to do is hang around, keep it close and strike late. No, the Bulls’ only chance might be to get out fast and desperately try to hang on to a lead. Because late is the Bucks’ time of game. Late is when champions snuff out upstarts’ sweet little dreams.
Doesn’t anybody remember what the Bucks did to the Suns after falling behind two games to none in the NBA Finals last year? Let’s take a quick glimpse at all the clutch ways in which they won four in a row.
In Game 3, they blitzed the Suns 30-9 and 24-6, respectively, to close the second and third quarters and didn’t let guard Devin Booker breathe offensively. This one was over long before the closing minutes.
In Game 4, Khris Middleton took over offensively — scoring 40, including 10 in a row down the stretch — and the Bucks’ fourth-quarter defense was an even bigger story. The Suns, who lost by six, had one field goal in a nearly six-minute stretch to close the game. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s key block against Deandre Ayton was an all-time highlight.
In Game 5, which the Bucks won by four, a 43-24 second quarter — the perfect quarter, really — got them back into it after a terrible start. It was anyone’s game near the end until Holiday had the sequence of his career, ripping the ball from Booker at one end and alley-ooping it to Antetokounmpo at the other end for a three-point play.
And in Game 6, a close, low-scoring affair, Antetokounmpo announced with a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance that he was the new best player on the planet. But the real story of why the Bucks won: With that perimeter defense unleashed in full, they held the Suns without a three-pointer for the last 15:49 of the game.
Rewatch the fourth quarter of Game 6, and you might wonder what business the Bulls have even being on the court with this team. The way the Bucks can run shooters off the three-point line, forcing them into contested twos, is perhaps their most underappreciated attribute. It wasn’t a great defensive season for the Bucks on the whole, but they’ve been locked in during fourth quarters for a while now. It’s in their DNA.
‘‘When it comes to those last five minutes, that stretch,’’ Holiday said, ‘‘I think that we’re good at locking in and locking down. . . . I think we accept and like the challenge.’’
All aboard the playoff treadmill. Or whoever can handle it. It slows for no one.