CHICAGO – The Milwaukee Bucks would seem to be playing with figurative house money, leaping from the worst record in the NBA to a playoff berth within a year, working with what used to a be a 3-0 playoff deficit in the team’s first round series against the Bulls, free and easy and bereft of complication.
Not so, according to Bucks coach Jason Kidd. Milwaukee pulled closer to Chicago with a 94-88 win on Monday evening, setting the series at 3-2 as it heads back to Milwaukee. According to the first-year Bucks coach, his team is hardly playing as if little matters in its showdown with Chicago’s championship contender.
“We’re not playing for the people,” Kidd reminded after Game 5, “we’re playing for each other.”
Slightly annoyed by the insinuation that his team has little to lose in its surprise first round showing, Kidd reminded the press that the Milwaukee Bucks “have everything to lose.”
They’re certainly playing like it.
The Bucks’ length harassed the Bulls into a miserable shooting performance in Game 5, as Chicago managed to hit just 34 percent of its shots. Milwaukee’s perimeter panache also extended beyond the three-point line, as Chicago missed 4-22 deep flings in the loss. A solid chunk of those attempts were enviable looks, but that hardly takes away from the idea that Milwaukee forced what should have been the series and game favorite into shots the underdog wanted them to toss up.
“This is our reality,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau noted following the loss. “We’ve been shooting the three great, tonight we went 4-22. It’s a make or miss league.”
The Bulls entered Monday shooting 41 percent from long range, an impressive mark (third amongst 16 postseason teams) against any defense, but exceedingly impressive against a Bucks team that came through with a top five defense all year while holding opponents to the eighth-worst three-point percentage during the regular season.
On the other end, second-year Bucks guard Michael Williams-Carter was a revelation – and it was about damn time.
The 2014 Rookie of the Year, acquired in February in a somewhat shocking trade deadline deal, entered Game 5 hitting just 38 percent of his shots against the Bulls in spite of working up against two lacking defenders in Derrick Rose and Aaron Brooks. Rose and 2014 All-Defensive team member Jimmy Butler could not keep MCW out of the lane in Monday’s Milwaukee win, however, as Carter-Williams scored all 10 of his field goals (in 15 attempts) in the paint. He added eight rebounds and nine assists for good measure.
Carter-Williams also overcame a sprained right ankle in the second half, and though he missed five of six shots in the fourth quarter, his defense down the stretch helped keep Bulls guard Derrick Rose from taking over late.
Rose was particularly awful in this loss. He missed 15 of 20 field goals while trying to work through Milwaukee’s length, two of his makes were desperate long two-point heaves, and Rose shot and missed all seven of his three-point attempts. His defense was poor, and he turned the ball over six times.
Rose’s backcourt mate Jimmy Butler played nearly the entire game, and while it didn’t exactly show as he loped up and down the court with his typical sprightly verve, his 5-21 shooting mark helped Milwaukee pull away. Butler managed 10 rebounds (he also tipped a few more out to helpers like Rose and Pau Gasol) and notched a tied-for-team high six assists. Bulls big man Joakim Noah was the other Chicago contributor that finished with six six assists, but in spite of a solid-shooting first half he missed two needed layups in the second half that helped Milwaukee keep the Bulls at arm’s length.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau maintained that he “thought Jo was solid” following the loss, but it’s clear that Noah is not at full strength. Even his first half makes were tough shots tossed in well below the win. Thibodeau once again failed to think on his feet in attempting to cobble together quick rotation changes to stem Milwaukee’s lengthy tide.
Chicago could have had this win and closed the series on Thursday, but these Bucks need to be credited. Not just for playing until the final week of April (and possibly beyond) after a miserable 2013-14, either, as the Bucks earned their way into that 3-2 deficit – nearly taking Game 3 at home while dominating long stretches of Games 4 and 5.
Reserve Buck big man John Henson notched a killer 14 rebounds in just under 23 bench minutes, and while he only blocked one shot in the win he changed seemingly every other Bulls look in the second half. Giannis Antetokounmpo blocked four shots and kept both Rose and Butler’s head on a swivel even though he wasn’t directly charged with guarding either. Third-year Bucks swingman Khris Middleton was a vocal leader on both ends, conferring with his head coach on several defensive sets, while veterans O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless overcame a combined 2-10 shooting night to effectively play the heel defensively.
This is what upstarts do. And though Kidd was unconvincing in attempting to influence onlookers that his Bucks weren’t playing fancy-free due to the 3-0 and then 3-1 series setting, it’s hard not to believe this young brand of Bucks aren’t thriving now that the pressure is off.
It’s on now, though. These Bucks have a legitimate chance to take the next two games and win this series. It will be fascinating to see how they react while well aware of their own, particular, reality.
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