The Eastern Conference’s third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and sixth-seeded Chicago Bulls meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Chicago won the last playoff meeting between the two teams in 2015.
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How they got here
Milwaukee Bucks (51-31)
The Bucks eased into their title defense. They were .500 for the first month of season, nursing some injuries and playing nine different starting lineups. They ripped through an eight-game winning streak to reestablish themselves among the Eastern Conference elite, and the rest of the regular season played out pretty much the same. They had their lulls, but every time we needed a reminder of who they were, they offered it to us.
Milwaukee outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions in 783 minutes with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday played together, operating on par with the best offense in basketball and the top-five defenses. There is no reason to believe they are anything other than a title favorite once again. Even Brook Lopez has returned from a back injury that cost him much of the season.
Much like the Bucks did, Antetokounmpo flexed when he needed to this season. He dropped a 40-14-6 on 67% shooting in a hard-fought victory against fellow MVP candidate Joel Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers on March 29, and then outdid himself by four points two nights later against Kevin Durant's Brooklyn Nets. He may not win MVP for the third time in four years, but Antetokounmpo is the most dominant player alive.
Chicago Bulls (46-36)
Chicago started 26-10, taking the East's best record through the New Year. New additions DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso could not have meshed better with incumbent All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. They collectively put the NBA on notice. They weren't here to compete; they were here to contend.
The wheels fell off in mid-January, when the Bulls lost Ball and Caruso to injury within a week of each other. LaVine tweaked his surgically repaired left knee around the same time, and discomfort has followed him into the playoffs. Ball is out for the season, LaVine is still feeling discomfort, and Caruso is shooting 31% from 3-point range since breaking his shooting wrist. Since Chicago's nine-game win streak snapped on Jan. 9, a once top-five offense has dipped below average, and a solid defensive unit is in the bottom five.
DeRozan held Chicago aloft for as long as long as he could. No player has scored more fourth-quarter points this season than DeRozan's 612 (on 55/44/86 shooting splits). He and LaVine are still two of the best shotmakers in the league, but the attrition of the Bulls' depth has made them a preferred playoff opponent.
The Bucks had an option to chase the No. 2 seed on the final day of the regular season and chose to rest their starters, effectively choosing this series with the Bulls over the possibility of facing the Brooklyn Nets.
Head to head
The Bucks swept their regular-season series with the Bulls, 4-0.
Chicago played Milwaukee close in their first two battles, but the Bucks won two late-season meetings by a combined 49 points. They did not even need Middleton in one of them and played Antetokounmpo half of another. The two-time MVP averaged 33.1 points, 16.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 3.1 combined blocks and steals per 40 minutes over four games against the Bulls — tough news for Chicago against Playoff Giannis.
Granted, LaVine missed two of the four meetings with Milwaukee, but Chicago faces a massive challenge. The Bulls have not beaten Antetokounmpo since 2017. Grayson Allen has added injury to that insult, committing the flagrant foul that resulted in Caruso's wrist injury. It is not a rivalry until Chicago fights back.
The Bucks lost PJ Tucker from last year's title-winning closing lineup, but Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Holiday and Pat Connaughton remain. Bobby Portis has gotten plenty of run with them in the absence of Lopez, and that group has outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions in a small sample size. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has also tried Allen, George Hill and Wes Matthews in smaller lineups.
DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic are mainstays for Chicago at the end of games. Caruso and second-round rookie Ayo Dosunmu are logical candidates to round out the closing lineup, but that group has been outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions in 97 minutes together this season. Javonte Green, Coby White and second-year lottery pick Patrick Williams are also options, depending on how each performs.
Matchup to watch
Holiday is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and the Bulls scored just 97.8 points per 100 possessions — six points worse than the league's worst offense this season — when he was matched up with DeRozan, according to the NBA's tracking data. DeRozan still averaged 31.3 points per game against the Bucks this season, an encouraging sign, because he needs to keep playing at an All-NBA level for the Bulls to compete. But if Holiday hounds DeRozan to any degree of success, Chicago's chances crater.
Milwaukee Bucks (-1100)
Chicago Bulls (+700)
Bucks in five.
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