As ejections go, Giannis Antetokounmpo flying from one end of the court to the other to deck a mid-follow-through Mike Dunleavy Jr. into the first row of Bradley Center seats could've been worse. With 1:34 left in the second quarter and the Bulls leading 58-28, the series all but over, the play was especially unnecessary. To be fair, Dunleavy dealt the gangly young Greek a shot to the chest on the previous play before dashing down the floor and spotting up for three. The veteran had been baiting the Bucks for most of a dominant Bulls half with a series of dubious cheapshots of his own. And still, all that said, Dunleavy drained the shot anyway.
One dirty play from the generally mild-mannered, 20-year-old Antetokounmpo, a player still growing into his jaw-dropping talent, can be excused. His blank expression afterward called to mind ubiquitous comic-book origin stories, the moment of lost composure where the hero accidentally discovers his own strength. It’s a learning process. On a similar note, there was plenty of self-discovery in the past two weeks for the Bucks, who more than adequately flexed their chops in a tremendous six-game showing. Unfortunately for the Bucks, their intensity and willingness to scrap on Thursday night was largely ineffective due to perhaps the Bulls' best collective effort of the entire season. Chicago eliminated Milwaukee with a 120-66 win in the largest margin of victory for a series-clinching game in playoff history.
"Nothing’s been easy for us this year,” Dunleavy said after the game in a press conference streamed on NBA.com. “We get going a bit, take a step forward, take a step back. Tonight, hopefully for us can be a momentum builder. Something clicked for this team, and hopefully we keep that going. We’ll see what we can do."
[daily_cut.NBA]It was a testament to the young Bucks’ progress that nobody could have seen a Bulls rout coming, not to this degree. Chicago opened the game with an 8-0 run with all three baskets coming off mid-air Derrick Rose assists. Dunleavy, who showed up for the proverbial wrestling match, came equipped with extra ammunition and led Chicago with 20 points. The Bulls shot 51.1 percent from the field and a blistering 15 of 30 from beyond the arc. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau even took his starters out in the third quarter, and every one of them finished in double figures, a reasonable feat not one Bucks player accomplished.
Still, Milwaukee pushed its divisional rival, a team many view as a conference contender, to six games and close to the brink. On a whole, the Bucks out-competed their opponents at junctures where they could have rolled over. Major credit goes to Jason Kidd’s motivational tactics and strategic scheming. But now, the moment Joakim Noah has been dreaming about all season is upon us, and the Bulls can book their tickets for an extended stay in Cleveland. With all respect to the Bucks, whose core group should have bigger moments ahead, the storylines and drama have been building to this point for months.
Though Milwaukee proved a legitimate six-game test, the jury’s still out on the best-case Bulls that showed up to close the series down. Even with Cleveland’s roster in minor disarray, to call Chicago a clear favorite in the second round makes little sense, given the erratic levels of engagement it displayed the past six games. The hope for the Bulls is that Thursday proves portentous, the ball keeps moving crisply, and that they have arrived for good. To lend credence to that theory, no opponent has ignited a fire under this team in Thibodeau’s tenure quite like LeBron James.
“We know they’re a great team,” Thibodeau said at the podium. “We’re going to have to play very well, play for 48 minutes. They’re well-rested, they’re sitting there, they’ve got a lot of weapons. It’s a lot more than just LeBron and Kyrie [Irving].”
In that respect, it would appear the Bulls have caught their first playoff break in a long time, as the Cavaliers enter the second round without Kevin Love and sans J.R. Smith for the first two games in Cleveland. Given a thin bench, David Blatt will likely be forced to play James extended minutes at power forward. That would force Chicago’s hand defensively in terms of matchups, but also put Cleveland in an uncomfortable position, as Irving will be forced into increased ball distribution duties and James will take a beating matching up with Noah and Taj Gibson. No matter what, the series is certainly more up for grabs than anyone might have foreseen.
With Thibodeau rumored to be on the way out, a roster as healthy as it’ll ever be, and a chance to make waves against James and beyond, there should be peak urgency for the experienced, though flawed Bulls. A first-round series that for a second flipped the script on them could have been just what the Bulls needed. Thursday’s dominant showing hinted at what they’re capable of, and after a series of lost, unpredictable campaigns, this group should be primed for a proper crescendo.
After all, as Noah might put it, what’s so good about Cleveland?