Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 46 points as the Bucks dominate Bulls 113-97 in a feisty game

CHICAGO – Not every Milwaukee Bucks game under Doc Rivers needs to be a “then and now” comparison from the time before he took over Jan. 29 and the present, but if there was one opponent that makes such a retrospective apropos are the Chicago Bulls.

Before Milwaukee's dominant 113-97 victory Friday night at the United Center, the Bucks edged the Bulls by nine points on Nov. 13 in Milwaukee, which left many veterans dissatisfied. Then, Chicago won in overtime at the United Center on Nov. 30 due to a controversial late-game decision to not foul on what turned into a tying three-pointer by the Bulls.

That game in particular stuck in the craw of the Bucks, as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis both referenced in Charlotte on Thursday how the Bulls had beaten them the “last time” – even though they captured the most recent victory in the series in an exhaustive overtime game on Dec. 11 in Milwaukee.

Which brought them to Friday night.

On paper, Milwaukee should take care of business against an under-.500 team. The Bucks had won four straight games heading into the game and had played elite defense (No. 5 in defensive rating, No. 6 in points allowed per game) over the last month. The Bulls had lost three of five and were missing a handful of key players.

Box score: Bucks 113, Bulls 97

This time, there not only was no overtime, but there was no doubt. The Bucks took control early and never let up and limited an opponent to under 100 points for the fourth straight game.

“I think we’ve been on a string lately. Obviously," Bucks guard Patrick Beverley said. "We came back from all-star break, Giannis stood up and gave us a huge message – stay focused, game-to-game, don’t look to the future. I think after that conversation I think we kind of dove in and kind of settled in. Obviously Doc gave us our roles, what he wanted us to do. You got your leader like that, you got your coach like that, you know your role, the game comes a lot easier.”

Antetokounmpo scored 46 points on 16-of-22 shooting (and 12 of 16 from the free throw line) and had 16 rebounds and six assists. It was his eighth game of at least 40 points this season and first since Feb. 3. He began the game facilitating, opening with four assists early in the first quarter, but after that Antetokounmpo turned up the aggressiveness and attacked the rim at will.

“I just feel like I had a little bit of energy," he said. "The last two games I played around 20-something minutes. Obviously it was a back-to-back. I love playing on back-to-backs. I think it kind of calms me down. I’m not in a rush when I play. I was just trying to make good plays. When (Damian Lillard) starts the game hot and making shots, now all the attention shifts to Dame, and then you have time to facilitate, attack angles, get Brook, play in the paint, so I was able to do that. But at the end of the day just another game. I was able to be aggressive. My teammates helped me, put me in a good spot and that was it.”

He also sprinkled in a couple of three-pointers and three mid-range jumpers for good measure.

Antetokounmpo led five Bucks in double figures, as he was joined by Lillard (16 points, 7 assists), Beverley (14 points), Brook Lopez (12) and Portis (11).

Milwaukee (40-21) became the second team in the Eastern Conference to reach 40 wins. Chicago dropped to 28-32.

The Bucks did an excellent job on Bulls star DeMar DeRozan, whose first shot was a contested airball over Jae Crowder and it didn’t get much better for him. DeRozan was 0 for 6 from the floor in 18 first half minutes and drew just one foul. He didn’t force the issue and handed out seven assists, but the short-handed Bulls needed him to put the ball in the basket, and Milwaukee just wasn’t going to allow him to beat them.

DeRozan scored 12 points on 5 of 13 shooting and finished with nine assists in 33 minutes. Before being ejected for a Flagrant 2, Nikola Vučević had 17 points and nine rebounds. Coby White led the Bulls with 22 points.

Bucks forward Bobby Portis hangs on the rim after throwing down a dunk as Bulls center Nikola Vucevic collects the ball during the first quarter Saturday night at United Center.
Bucks forward Bobby Portis hangs on the rim after throwing down a dunk as Bulls center Nikola Vucevic collects the ball during the first quarter Saturday night at United Center.

Bulls center Nikola Vučević ejected for flagrant foul

The Bulls’ center was sent to the showers early after he gave AJ Green a forearm and knocked the second-year guard hard to the court with 9 minutes 27 seconds left in the game. Beverley and Portis took exception and the officials called time out to calm things down, and the officials ultimately determined Vučević’s foul was worth a Flagrant 2 and automatic ejection.

“I was trying to get downhill, make a play," Green said of the play. "That’s really about it. I’m glad 'BP' and Pat 'Bev' had my back. It’s basketball. I’m fine, man. It’s all good. It’s all good.”

Added Beverley: "I just think the game of basketball is a physical game, obviously. I didn’t know how big the Milwaukee Bucks vs. the Chicago Bulls was until tonight. It’s how the game is, though. It’s played physical. You’re going to get hit. I like to be the guy who go out there and hit people instead of getting hit. So, that’s it."

It was the final escalation of tempers that had been flaring throughout the night, as Bulls center Andre Drummond and DeRozan had fouls reviewed for hostile acts. DeRozan was assessed a Flagrant 1 for rushing Portis and shoving him in the open court after Portis had collected a rebound over him and knocked him to the floor.

“We have instigators, for sure," Doc Rivers said. "But it only is good if you can do that but you don’t get caught into it. I thought tonight it was right on the edge and then we backed off. I was happy that that (Vučević) review took an hour because it allowed everybody to kind of get their composure back. You don’t want that, either.”

And those were just the fouls that were called.

Lillard took an elbow to the head from Vučević at one point and Ayo Dosunmu set Beverley flying with a shove. Alex Caruso, Drummond, Beverley and Portis all had moments of physical play. DeRozan and Caruso earned technical fouls for some of their post-play words.

“Bullies? We surrounded by bullies," Antetokounmpo said of his team. "Hey man, it feels good. Not to disrespect the game in any way, but I feel like I have a lot of passionate players, from Bobby, from Pat, from Jae, from AJ, from Beasley, from everybody. Brook. We have passion in us and we want to win. And sometimes, you know, we might shove and push. Or be more physical than usual. But it’s good to have a team like that. We’re kind of trying to change the narrative around here.”

TV schedule: WMLW to televise 10 Milwaukee Bucks games for free and over the air

Did you notice the Bucks' rotation changes?

The Bucks changed their rotations a bit on Friday with not only Lillard once again playing all 12 minutes of the first quarter but Lopez logging 11 minutes and Malik Beasley 10. That meant Antetokounmpo was the top starter available to begin the second quarter, and the Bucks elected to go with a zone for about the first four minutes with Portis, Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and Pat Connaughton joining Antetokounmpo.

Even though the Bulls started the second quarter hot with five straight points to cut the lead to 33-29, the zone then slowed things down and they didn’t make another field goal until the 6:20 mark, a five-minute stretch.

Rivers then rode the starters for over nine minutes to open the second half before Antetokounmpo, Beasley and Crowder were subbed out with 2:48 to go and the Bucks were up 80-66. Lillard and Lopez played the entire quarter, however, helping the Bucks to a 82-72 lead after the third.

The usage led to an interesting lineup to begin the fourth quarter, too, with AJ Green joining Beverley, Connaughton, Portis and Antetokounmpo. But, that group put the game away with 6:48 to go when they went on a 17-0 run to take a 101-76 lead.

“We made the decision, because they were small, to play AJ in the second half over going with the big lineup that we’d been using," Doc Rivers said. "Because I thought the big lineup in the first half, we just fouled every time and that got them in the penalty. So bringing another shooter on the floor, space the floor. We flipped. Usually it’s Dame that comes out first, I just thought Giannis had it going. Sometimes you just ride that hand.”

Green scored seven points in nine minutes.

“I’d say AJ Green," Beverley said of what worked with that grouping in the fourth quarter. "AJ came in, he provided a spark. I think he came off a pindown, hit a midrange, came back hit a big time three, kind of gave us separation. Obviously, defensively, Bobby Portis you can put him in blitz – I think he got like five deflections that quarter, two, three steals that quarter. Those two for sure.”

Green, conversely, credited the tough team defense.

“I mean, you can only do that getting stops," he said. "We got stops and I think just played together well. We got a great shot every time. And you know, it always helps when Pat gets hot, too. Somebody goes on a little run by themselves. Just playing together really.”

Five numbers

3 Official reviews on hard fouls on the part of the Bulls.

7 Games the Bucks have held an opponent to 110 points or under since Jan. 29, a span of 15 games. They did it four times in their previous 46 games.

8-3 Bucks' record on the second night of back-to-backs. Milwaukee has three more back-to-backs left on the schedule.

23 Games this season in which Antetokounmpo has scored 30 or more points while shooting 60% or better, a league high. The last time a player did that was Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1994-95.

489 Combined regular season and postseason victories for the Bucks in games Antetokounmpo has played, the most in franchise history. Antetokounmpo is in his 11th season. Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief’s teams won 488 games from 1979-89.

Khris Middleton ‘really close’ to return for Bucks

The three-time all-star sprained his left ankle in the first quarter of Milwaukee’s loss to Phoenix on Feb. 6 and was ruled out early on Friday for the game against the Bulls.

He has missed the last 10 games, but Rivers said before the game Middleton had gotten three days of good work in Milwaukee.

“He’s doing great,” Rivers said.

The Bucks have Saturday and Sunday off before hosting the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, but Rivers wasn’t sure Middleton could be back for that game.

“We’ll see,” Rivers said. “I don’t know that yet, to be honest. We haven’t talked about it that far. I think he’s really close.”

The 32-year-old Middleton played in 43 of the Bucks' first 51 games, as he sat out one game of a back-to-back set seven times. He missed the Nov. 26 game against Portland with Achilles tendon soreness.

Middleton, who re-signed with the Bucks in the offseason, must play in 19 of the remaining 21 regular season games to receive a $1.5 million bonus.

Why did the Bucks game start so late?

Hall of Fame basketball journalist Sam Smith, who writes for the Bulls website, had a simple question for Doc Rivers before the 9 p.m. schedule tipoff Friday:

“Do you think ESPN knows this is the Central Time Zone?” Smith asked.

Rivers laughed.

“No!” he said. “Nine o’clock. This is our second one. Two Friday 9 o’clock games.”

The Bucks head coach said there was a conversation with his coaching staff about what to do with the players throughout the day Friday after getting in early in the morning from Charlotte – but there was no good answer.

NBC Chicago reporter K.C. Johnson then quipped that, “The headline is clearly you have no pull with ESPN.”

Rivers laughed again at the reference to his former employer and the network that created the late start.

“None,” he said. “Zero. Zero. I probably have less.”

The game actually began closer to 9:15 p.m.

The good news for the Bucks is that there are no more 9 p.m. CT starts scheduled.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Giannis scored 46 points as the Bucks dominate Bulls 113-97 in a feisty game