What a difference a year makes.
At this point last year, we were feeling out the concept of new Bucks owners while looking toward the draft lottery to determine who the team could select in the 2014 draft. Now, under the tutelage of new coach Jason Kidd, the team outpaced just about everyone’s expectations to return to the NBA playoffs for the second time in three years. While the majority of fans would likely have preferred to avoid a matchup with the Bulls in favor of squaring off with the recently faltering Toronto Raptors, the opportunity to rekindle what should be an interesting interstate rivalry with a less-than-secure Bulls team is still intriguing as a young team gets its first taste of the playoffs.
What to Watch For: Bucks
A young team’s reaction to the brighter stage of the playoffs will be worth noting. While its youngest star insists that he won’t be feeling the pressure, the Bucks’ overall lack of playoff experience compared to its opponents is likely to play into its performance. While veteran players like Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless, and O.J. Mayo each have 20+ games of playoff experience in their careers, key players like Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Khris Middleton enter the series having never tasted the NBA playoffs. While it’s unrealistic to expect a deep playoff run at this stage in the game, playoff experience for those young core players can be an important developmental tool going forward.
The state of the Bucks’ bench will also be a concern as they establish playoff rotations. Most teams shorten up their benches for the playoffs, and it will be interesting to watch whether Kidd decides to follow suit or lean on his bench maintain the balance that was a calling card for the team most of the season. If the likes of Mayo, Bayless, and Dudley can find their early-season form, the typical playoff team’s weakness may turn into a strength. If they can’t, the pressure on the team’s starting lineup to produce a majority of its offense will probably be too much to overcome.
What to Watch For: Bulls
While the Bulls at full strength are a championship contender, the current state of that team is far from complete. Obviously, the annual Derrick Rose knee injury sidelined the former MVP for 31 games in the regular season. He’s played just five games since returning from a meniscus injury on April 8, averaging only 20 minutes, 11 points, and 4 assists in that time period. He’s reportedly active for Game 1, but it’s uncertain whether he’ll see full starters’ minutes or cede a significant number of minutes to Aaron Brooks at the point guard position.
Some key big men will enter the series nursing injuries as well. Joakim Noah is nursing a hamstring injury, though he’s also expected to be active for the series; backup Taj Gibson will also be dealing with a sprained shoulder. Gibson took over Noah’s starting spot in the lineup in Wednesday’s season finale, but an injury to either may significantly impact the team’s forward depth. Obviously, the loss of a former defensive player of the year in Noah would be a huge blow, but if Gibson is limited in any way, rookie Nikola Mirotic would be thrust into a more significant role and the team may have to rely on 37-year-old Nazr Mohammed off the bench. Mirotic has certainly risen to the challenge offensively this season, but his inclusion of lineups next to Pau Gasol creates a significantly less imposing defensive presence.
Regular Season History
The Bulls took the season series by a total of three games to one, with the lone Bucks victory coming in a 95-87 April Fools’ Day win. Neither team has cracked 100 points in their four matchups, with a high team score of 95 occurring three times–twice for the Bulls and once for the Bucks. This is the first playoff matchup between the two teams since 1990, where the Bulls defeated the Bucks 3-1 in a best-of-five series behind the efforts of some dudes name Jordan, Pippen, and Grant.
The Bucks are seeking their first win at the United Center since December 10, 2013, when they pulled out a horrific 78-74 victory. Defense might be a theme of this series.
Matchup to Watch
While you could pick any number of matchups to keep an eye on–including the point guard pairing of MCW versus Rose, the battle of opponent-annoying centers between Pachulia and Noah, the potential European war between Ilyasova and Mirotic, and new Bucks fan favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo against old Bucks fan favorite Mike Dunleavy, perhaps the most interesting will be the pairing of emerging shooting guards in this series.
Bulls guard and former Marquette standout Jimmy Butler was a near-lock for Most Improved Player before tailing off slightly at the end of the regular season, while Middleton quietly turned himself into a dangerous sharpshooter and legitimate scoring threat. Middleton is more of a three-point scoring threat than Butler while the Bulls guard is the team’s iron man, leading the league in minutes played at nearly 39 per game. Middleton will be one of the keys to a Bucks offense scuffles at times without many other scoring options; meanwhile, Butler will be asked to be a primary scoring threat to take pressure off of Rose’s knees. The “winner” of this matchup will likely go a long way toward determining if this series results in a Bulls sweep or if the Bucks can create an interesting 6 or 7 game contest.
PG: Michael Carter-Williams
SG: Khris Middleton
SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
PF: Ersan Ilyasova
C: Zaza Pachulia
PG: Derrick Rose
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Mike Dunleavy
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Joakim Noah
Offensive Efficiency (Points scored per 100 possessions):
Bucks – 100.5 (25th overall)
Bulls – 104.7 (10th overall)
Defensive Efficiency (Points allowed per 100 possessions):
Bucks – 99.3 (2nd)
Bulls – 101.5 (11th)
While both teams stand in the top 10 in points allowed, the gap in offensive efficiency is one of the significant discrepancies in this series. As we’ve seen, the Bucks’ offense can be inconsistent, particularly in halfcourt sets and they haven’t scored over 100 points against the Bulls in their last 9 games.
Bucks – 16 (29th)
Bulls – 13.2 (9th)
Bucks – 16.6 (1st)
Bulls – 11.7 (29th)
Points off Turnovers:
Bucks – 19.2 (3rd)
Bulls: 13.7 (29th)
If their halfcourt sets aren’t effective, the Bucks want to generate turnovers and get their points that way. While they force the most turnovers in the league, the Bulls are no slouches when it comes to taking care of the ball. If the Bucks can utilize their length and aggressive defence to force the Bulls into a bunch of miscues, the resulting transition opportunities may help them steal a game or two.
Choose the Form of the Destructor
Pau Gasol was a one-man wrecking crew in the regular-season series against the Bucks, averaging over 24 points and 13 rebounds in four games including a 46-point effort in January.
While his overall impact on the team might be inflated by his statistics, one of those scoring outbursts can certainly be enough to swing a playoff game or two back toward the Bulls. While Jason Kidd’s defensive schemes this year have typically been solid, he may have to get creative if Ilyasova can’t handle Gasol on that end (spoiler alert: he probably can’t). One interesting possibility is matching Antetokounmpo with Gasol early to try and mitigate his skill with length while allowing Ilyasova to hang with the less dangerous Dunleavy. Regardless of his primary defender, the Bucks will likely have to execute their scrambling, double-team based defense near flawlessly to contain Gasol without leaving holes for the Bulls to exploit.
Bulls in 5.
Derrick Rose’s knees survive the first round and they advance to a second round matchup with the Cavaliers.