Bucks come off the ropes, throttle Bulls to take 2-1 series lead

Bulls coach Billy Donovan warned his players heading into Game 3 that the defending NBA champions would have a response after losing Wednesday at home. The response came, and the Bulls had no answer for it, suffering the worst home playoff loss in team history.

SHARE Bucks come off the ropes, throttle Bulls to take 2-1 series lead
Zach LaVine

It wasn’t some subtle warning that Bulls coach Billy Donovan shared in passing. He spent a good portion of the 24 hours leading into Game 3 of the Bulls’ first-round playoff series Friday reminding his players that the Bucks are the defending NBA champions — and that they’re at their most dangerous when challenged.

Even during last year’s championship run, the Bucks won key playoff games with two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined. They started both the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Nets and the NBA Finals against the Suns down 0-2.

The idea that they’d blink against the sixth-seeded Bulls with the series tied 1-1 — even without All-Star forward Khris Middleton (sprained medial collateral ligament) in the lineup — just wasn’t reality.

The Bulls found that out and then some, losing 111-81 at the United Center — the worst home playoff loss in team history — as the Bucks regained the edge in the best-of-seven series.

“They responded the way they should have,” Bulls veteran forward DeMar DeRozan said. “That’s a lesson on us. The best learning tool is to go through a situation. They came out and whipped our butt, and now it’s up to us on how we want to respond.”

It will have to be a quick response, with Game 4 beginning at noon Sunday at the United Center.

“I don’t think there’s anything [the Bucks] haven’t seen,” Donovan said. “They’ve been down in playoff series, they’ve been tied in playoff series, they’ve been up in playoff series. They’ve dealt with different challenges over the course of their run the last several years. Khris Middleton is a great player, but they obviously have a lot of other players around him that are really, really special.”

And one the Bulls are especially familiar with. Former Bull Bobby Portis got the start in place of Middleton and instantly was a factor. Within the first four minutes, he scored eight points, including two three-pointers, while serving as a rim protector, causing the Bulls to become stagnant on the perimeter as they fell behind 15-6.

Stagnant offense was a theme for the Bulls for most of the first half. They ended the first quarter trailing 33-17 and were down by 22 points after a layup by Portis with 7:39 left in the second.

“Without question, they were the aggressor,” Donovan said. “[Friday] was a night they shot the ball a lot better than we did, and then I thought we lost our way when we struggled to make shots. That’s what I talk about with teams that have won championships. They know how to respond. They went to another level, and we did not.”

The Bucks shot 36.6% from three-point range and had 46 points in the paint, while the Bulls shot 26.5% from three and had 30 points in the paint.

DeRozan, who had 41 points in the Bulls’ Game 2 upset, was handcuffed all night and finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting.

“I knew they were going to make adjustments,” DeRozan said. “Got a feel for it throughout the game, but by the time I got a feel, they had already made a run. Now I’ve got to take advantage of how they’re going to guard me and Zach [LaVine] for sure.”

LaVine finished with 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting. What does he want from the Bulls in Game 4?

“Us [to] respond,’’ LaVine said. “They came out and hit us in the mouth, and we didn’t respond the right way.”

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