The Milwaukee Bucks had a chance to move up to the No. 2 seed in the last week of the season, but purposely dropped into No. 3 by resting key players. Their goal was to face the Chicago Bulls, who have been sliding in the standings for months, and if those trends hold true, the reigning champions should be through to the second round with a minimum of fuss.
Let’s take a look at how the series breaks down.
Season Series: 4-0 Bucks
Bucks: 51-31 | No. 3 offence | No. 14 defence | No. 8 net rating
Bulls: 46-36 | No. 13 offence | No. 23 defence | No. 20 net rating
To win series: MIL: -1200, CHI: +750 (Courtesy Bet365 at time of publication)
To win championship: MIL: +450, CHI: +8000
Bucks Starting 5: Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez
Bucks Bench: Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen, George Hill, Bobby Portis
Bulls Starting 5: Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Nikola Vucevic
Bulls Bench: Ayo Dosunmu, Colby White, Javonte Green, Tristan Thompson
Pulse of the Bucks
The Bucks are fully healthy and ready to defend their championship. Antetokoumpo is playing at MVP levels as usual, while Holiday and Middleton supply just enough perimeter creation to balance out the offence. All of their supporting players can shoot, and this will be a short series so long as there are no injuries. Lopez has missed most of the year with back injuries, and it remains to be seen if he can return to full strength having missed so much of the year, but Portis is a capable backup who can step in at any time. The only weakness for Milwaukee is its defence, which has historically been excellent with this group, but slid back to average this season. The loss of Lopez undoubtedly played a part in their slide, but the more popular theory is that the Bucks haven’t exerted themselves as hard given their status as reigning champions. Either way, they will have reliable options to cover the Bulls’ top players, and should win this series with ease.
Pulse of the Bulls
Do the Bulls still have a pulse? Early in January, the Bulls were first in the East at 27-11 having rattled off a nine-game win streak which included game-winning threes from DeRozan on back-to-back nights. From that point onward, Chicago is 19-25 and was in serious danger of dropping into the play-in tournament had it not been for an even more precipitous slide from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The biggest issue has been health, as most of Chicago’s lineup has missed time, but even with everyone back outside of Lonzo Ball, the Bulls continue to slide. DeRozan’s heroics and dominance in crunch time have swung so many games, but the point differential doesn’t lie. The Bulls are 10 games over .500, but have actually been outscored by 32 points on the year. Snce the All-Star break, the Bulls rank 25th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Long story short: there is a very good reason the Bucks manipulated the standings to arrive at this specific matchup.
Key matchup to watch
Can the Bulls do anything against Antetokounmpo? Chicago’s primary defender will be Williams, the 21-year-old forward who missed over four months due to a fractured wrist. Williams is athletic and strong, but Antetokounmpo is on another level and will dominate him in single coverage. If Williams fouls out, the Bulls lack any other big swing players who can remotely match up to Antetokounmpo. Chicago will need lots of help at the rim, but Vucevic is allergic to contact, and Thompson is past his prime. Bulls coach Billy Donovan will have to get extremely creative to work around the limitations of his roster, because stopping the Greek Freak is an absolute must if the Bulls even want to avoid a sweep.
Bucks win if …
Milwaukee just needs to play their game. It will not be difficult to beat the Bulls another four times having already done so in the regular season. In their most recent meeting, Milwaukee won by 21 points and most of the starters were chilling on the bench for the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo will lead the way as always, while one of Middleton or Holiday will also score freely depending on who Caruso isn’t guarding. The only interesting storyline to watch is the ongoing feud between these two teams over Allen, who broke Caruso’s wrist earlier in the season. The Bulls then retaliated by committing multiple hard fouls on Allen in their next game. It will be like hockey in that sense — if the games are out of hand, at least you might see a fight.
Bulls win if …
Not to be dismissive of their chances or to tempt fate, but Antetokounmpo would have to miss time in the series for it to be close. Even in the unlikely event of an absence, the Bucks still match up well with the Bulls. The simple fact is that Chicago is not built for playoff success, and they have been in a freefall for months. As good as DeRozan is in the clutch, relying on someone to hit tough shots over and over again is not enough to win a series. If the Bulls get hot from three — which is unlikely since they have made the second-fewest threes in the league — then they might take a game or two since the Bucks do concede plenty of of them.
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