Five boxes Bulls must check to upset Bucks

The first-round meeting with the defending champs will be an uphill climb. There will be five major keys, and the Bulls have to be on the winning side of all five.

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Alex Caruso

Doing his best to motivate his Bulls teammates heading into a first-round playoff showdown with the Bucks that starts Sunday, veteran big man Tristan Thompson was again preaching his own version of NBA history this week.

“In 2015 [in the Eastern Conference finals], we played the Atlanta Hawks, who had won 60-some games, and they beat up on us all year earlier in the season — beat our [butt] every game, and they weren’t close games, either,” Thompson said.

Actually, Thompson’s Cavaliers beat the Hawks by 33 in the first of four meetings during the 2014-15 season. And two of the Hawks’ three victories were by fewer than 10 points. But forget it. Thompson, excitement in his voice, was rolling.

“And then we get to the playoffs and beat them 4-0,” he continued. “We got the whole week to study for this final exam, no matter how the previous tests went. That’s why it doesn’t really matter what a good team does to you in the regular season.”

A good point, but perhaps that’s not really accurate, either. It’s not just what the Bucks did to the Bulls in the regular season, sweeping them in all four meetings. It’s what every elite team did to the Bulls in the regular season. Against the eight teams who finished with a winning percentage of .600 or better, the Bulls were an embarrassing 2-21, only beating the Celtics and Mavericks, and both of those wins were in early November.

Do the Bulls have a path to upset the defending champs in this series? A very slight one. But they’ll need all five of these keys to go their way:


The Heat have the blueprint for dealing with Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP. He shot 55.3% overall from the field this season but just 38.6% against the Heat in three games.

Yes, the Heat have an elite defender in Bam Adebayo to throw on Antetokounmpo, but they also play him with physicality. More important, when he’s attacking in the paint, they build a wall for him to try to plow through.

The Bulls don’t have an Adebayo, but forward Patrick Williams is an unproven physical specimen and Alex Caruso has no fear of putting his nose in the mix. They won’t be able to replicate the Heat wall, but maybe a fence? Force Antetokounmpo to be a mid-range jump-shooter and live with the results.


The Bulls are at their best when the ball is moving and the assists are stacking up. The isolation ball they’ve played way too much over the last six weeks has to stop. It feeds right into what the Bucks want defensively.


The Bulls have been awful defending against the three-pointer, especially since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Bucks finished fifth in the NBA in both three-point attempts per game (38.4) and percentage made (36.6). The communication in rotating among Caruso, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan has to be stellar if the Bulls want to survive the long-range onslaught.


The Bulls’ young bench has little playoff experience. Meanwhile, Bobby Portis, George Hill, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Serge Ibaka are all capable of turning a small Bucks lead into a large one. Bulls guards Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu will be tested like never before.


Playoff basketball is physical. Baskets are tougher to come by. LaVine, and even DeRozan at times, complain too much when they don’t get the calls they want and have a tendency to carry that to the defensive end. That has to stop. Begging for calls in the playoffs is a good way to start summer vacation early.

NOTE: Bulls lead assistant Chris Fleming and assistant Damian Cotter will miss Game 1 after testing positive for the coronavirus.

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