CHICAGO—Very little has gone according to plan for the Chicago Bulls in the cosmic joke that has unfolded, slowly and consistently, since the first time Derrick Rose went down three years ago. Maybe then it shouldn't have been a surprise that with potentially their biggest break of the season looming in the newly short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago let its once-forgone conclusion of a series win slip to newfound levels of uncertainty. If there’s one thing the Milwaukee Bucks have announced on the national stage this month, it’s that they push back. Monday night, it amounted to a 94-88 win, an extra shot in an already burgeoning rivalry and the opportunity to knot the series Thursday at the Bradley Center.
The Bucks jumped out to a 9-0 lead out of the gate, and simply found ways to hang on. They outshot (42.4 percent to Chicago’s 34.4), outrebounded (winning a 48-45 split) and on the whole ran their opponents ragged, forcing the Bulls to seize the series for themselves. Chicago never did, and broke a nine-game winning streak at home overall to a team that had lost five straight at the United Center, where fans were surprisingly restrained in a potential clincher. The big reason being the Bulls never really gave them much reason to cheer.
Disappointingly languid for long stretches, Chicago shot 7 of 30 in the fourth quarter and was forced to lean on Pau Gasol, whose best game of the series went wasted while Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler combined for 10-of-41 shooting. Rose turned it over six times with just two assists. Strong showings from Joakim Noah (10 points, 13 rebounds, six assists) and Taj Gibson (12 points in 14 minutes) weren’t enough to save the Bulls when both of their lynchpin guards came up empty.
Milwaukee scored 46 points in the paint, shot 16 of 16 from the foul line and defended Chicago with its now-trademark youthful tenacity, which proved to be a difference-maker on an especially flat evening for the Bulls. Despite limiting their turnovers to 13 from Game 4’s 28-piece debacle, Chicago shot itself in the foot with a 4 of 22 mark from three after hitting at an impressive—perhaps unsustainable—41.2% clip on the series.
“I’ve never been in a position where you’re up 3-0, and then all of a sudden you’re 3-2,” Gasol said after the game. “When you have opportunities to close a series and put a team away, you have to take advantage of it and we haven’t done that yet. It’s a test for us to see how we’re going to handle this.”
On the podium, Gasol calmly dismissed the idea that the Bulls were overconfident, or looking ahead to a potential second-round matchup with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Love-less Cavs. If they were, now they can’t afford such a luxury. “We didn't play with the sense of urgency, or desire needed to close out a team in that position,” he said. “We’re going to have to play the next game like it’s the last game, not thinking ‘if we lose this one, we’re at home for Game 7.’ That would be a terrible mistake.“
[daily_cut.nba]On the other end, it was the backcourt of Michael Carter-Williams and Khris Middleton getting the better of Rose and Butler. The Bucks took a risk in moving away from the smaller lineup that won them Game 4, but Carter-Williams, who sustained an ankle sprain mid-game, got taped, re-entered and proved himself worthy of the extra minutes. The lanky point guard put together perhaps his best game as a Buck, shooting 10 of 15 for 22 points and nearing a triple-double with nine assists and eight rebounds. Middleton set the tone with a 13-point first quarter and finished with 21.
“There was pressure on us coming into tonight knowing that if we lose, we go home,” said Middleton. “We just fought, we believe that we can beat this team and we felt that we shouldn’t be going home right now."
John Henson, who’s quietly put together a strong series, led Milwaukee with 14 rebounds. Giannis Antetokounmpo blocked four shots, including a pair on Rose and Butler as the game wound down that sealed the upset. Though the fact the Bucks toughed through growing pains all season and are here competing speaks volumes, the speed of their cohesion has opened eyes. Kidd has proven to be worth the two second-rounders Milwaukee sacrificed to get him, and now his team threatens the star-studded, backsliding Bulls in a series that probably should be over.
“For us, being young, we gotta go through it,” Kidd said. “There’s a lot of teams that are young and talk about the future, sometimes maybe rely on that. For us, it’s not about the future, it’s about now. How do we get better each time we take the floor? As a team, we’re not built around one guy, or two guys. That’s kind of special to see us really believe in it.”
Consider the Bulls warned. They’ve battled peaks and valleys all season, and the current stretch presents a bit of both. Chicago sits on the precipice of a second-round matchup with another divisional rival, in which a victory could go a long way to re-writ the narrative of a painful, frustrating past few years. Just as they began to rediscover the contender label, the Bulls found a way to throw a series into limbo that should have been a statement of their dominance.
No matter how convincingly they might dispatch of Milwaukee on Thursday, how healthy Rose might feel or how Butler imposes his star on these playoffs, these are still the same schizophrenic Bulls, toeing the line between dominant and distressing. Don’t about worry which team will show up in Cleveland, when it’s the bus ride to Milwaukee that now carries all the weight.
“We gotta give credit to the Bucks, their spirit, how they’re competing, giving themselves a chance,” said Gasol. “We’ve kind of done it to ourselves. We have a difficult challenge ahead of us, they have momentum, they have confidence and they’re going home to force game seven. Let’s see how we react to the situation as team."