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NBA: Eastern Conference playoff preview
3:54 | NBA
NBA: Eastern Conference playoff preview
Friday April 17th, 2015

Matchup: (3) Chicago Bulls vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
Season Series: 3-1 Chicago,
Efficiency rankings: Chicago (Off. rating: 10, Def. Rating: 11, Net Rating: 9),
Milwaukee: (Off. rating: 25, Def. Rating: 2, Net Rating: 14)

The Matchup

At a glance, pitting the deep, playoff-tested Bulls against the baby Bucks (average age: 24.1 years) feels like a stepping-stone to the marquee Chicago-Cleveland slugfest many have pined for. But for the forward-thinking viewer, there should be plenty of poetry in a matchup that could evolve into a budding rivalry sooner than you might think.

[daily_cut.NBA]As redemptive storylines go, here are the Bulls, for whom a run to the Finals and return to the top of the Eastern Conference comes with massive implications. The annual Tom Thibodeau front office soap opera seems to have hit its subversive zenith, and there’s a looming sense that this could be ride or die for the Thibodeau era. This team can no longer rely on his preferred, grinding, first-to-100-points style, but it will hurt you in a number of ways on the other side of the ball with a vintage Pau Gasol, ascendant Jimmy Butler and pump-fake maestro Nikola Mirotic playing at a high level. There’s championship urgency, and then there’s robocop-legged MVP Derrick Rose, back in the playoffs for the first time in three years.

In the other corner, the Bucks boast a youthful core tasting the postseason for the first time, anchored by the much-improved Khris Middleton and the delicacy best-enjoyed-by-Vine known as Giannis Antetokounmpo. Coach Jason Kidd masterminded one of the league’s best defenses (the Bucks held teams to a East-leading 99.3 points per 100 possessions and 43.7% shooting) by maximizing a group of long, athletic perimeter defenders. Milwaukee went from 15 to 41 wins under Kidd, and it did it mostly without injured rookie Jabari Parker, who was set to serve as an offensive cornerstone before suffering a torn left ACL. The Bucks are getting close to shedding the whole cute-little-brother shtick, and this series marks their first real chance to push their neighbors around a little bit. They don’t need to win this series to make a statement about where the balance of divisional power might be heading.

• MORE NBA: SI.com's playoff coverage | Playoff schedule | Final grades

The Case For The Bulls

Although it’s been a tumultuous campaign, replete with defensive struggles and patchwork lineups, Chicago has managed to enter the first round with some momentum, winning four straight to clinch the three seed. Though Rose’s minutes have been limited since returning, his presence as a still-dynamic playmaker has given the Bulls a needed morale boost.

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Bulls easing Derrick Rose back into the fold ahead of playoff push

Though this team has been underwhelming at times, Chicago still has a puncher’s chance with its big-game experience and pure talent level to make some waves deep into the playoffs. The rarity of Rose’s availability and the need to make up for three lost postseasons should mean a Bulls team even more focused than usual. Noah and Taj Gibson are banged up but expected to play Saturday, which means the Bulls will have the closest they’ve come to a full deck since October.

Chicago has often struggled against teams that can push the tempo, make them defend for 48 minutes and expose the Noah-Gasol defensive pairing with athletic bigs and floor-spacers. The Bucks are well-coached and Kidd will gameplan heavily, but an inefficient offense without a true go-to-guy will make it tough for them, even if their defense can keep games close.

Don’t forget, Milwaukee is just a two-hour drive for Bulls fans.

The Case For The Bucks

Milwaukee must continue to buckle down on the defensive end if it hopes to steal the series. It has the personnel to do that, with Michael-Carter Williams, Middleton and Antetokounmpo able to switch on the perimeter and harass ballhandlers. The Bulls can get sloppy with turnovers at times, and the Bucks sorely need to turn them into offense. Transition baskets and added confidence would go a long way toward swinging series momentum.

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Bucks clinch playoff berth, sixth seed in Jason Kidd's first season as coach

If there’s any serious hope here, the Bucks will need their bigs to step up defensively and on the glass. Zaza Pachulia, John Henson and Miles Plumlee give them size, but if the Bulls' trio of Noah, Gasol and Gibson dominate second-chance opportunities, it’s tough to see a surprise ending to this series. Ersan Ilyasova and Jared Dudley give the Bucks floor-spacing options at the four, but neither can put it on the floor and play drive-and-kick consistently enough to give the Bulls’ slower-footed bigs a true headache.

Still, consistency has not been Chicago’s calling card, and Milwaukee narrowly won the last tilt on April 1. If the Bucks catch their opponents looking ahead to Cleveland and disrupt their offensive rhythm, they could extend the series into uncomfortable territory for the Bulls.

• SI FEATURES: James Harden | Russell Westbrook | Patty Mills | Hawks

The X-Factor

Michael Carter-Williams, Bucks. It would be easy to pick Antetokounmpo with his infinite limbs and bottomless bag of dunks that will shake Twitter’s Richter scale at some point during this series. His day will come. But it’s Carter-Williams, liberated from the experiment in Philadelphia, who will have the ball in his hands (his 25.4% usage rate leads the team post-All Star break) and the most to prove in his playoff debut. Carter-Williams will need to push Rose on both ends and open the floor for shooters to give the Bucks a chance. He’s just 23, but Carter-Williams's prospect shine has largely worn off, as he’s yet to show anyone he can shoot the ball himself. Don’t expect a barrage of jumpers to fall, but the former Rookie of the Year could alter some perceptions with a strong performance.

MORE NBA: Comparing MCW to Kidd | Butler's rise | Training with Parker

Telling Stat

21. If you guessed Jimmy Butler’s jersey number, kudos. But due to injuries, Chicago’s starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Gasol and Noah have played together in just 21 games this season. In those games, the Bulls have gone 16-5, which speaks to their championship potential and the imminent fragility of such dreams. When they’re at their best, the Bulls are whipping the ball inside and out, creating easy looks for each other and putting up points in a hurry. Their depth is still a strength, particularly with the emergence of Mirotic, but to last for the long haul the Bulls must find an optimal mix of minutes, and then cross their fingers for good health. 

The Pick 

Bulls in five. Chicago’s best-case scenario involves a clean sweep of the Bucks, a short trip home down I-94 and extended time in the training room before packing for Noah’s preferred Midwestern resort town. The Bucks could steal a game, but they’ll roll out the least efficient scoring offense of any playoff team and don't have the firepower to play spoiler, unless the Bulls abruptly run out of gas at the end of a difficult season. Expect the Bulls, healthy and motivated as they’ll ever be, to recognize the gravitas of their current circumstances and take care of business.

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