Bucks 94, Bulls 90: Milwaukee's Big Three lead the way in first victory over Chicago

·8 min read
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to drive to the basket against Bulls forward Tyler Cook during the first quarter Friday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo looks to drive to the basket against Bulls forward Tyler Cook during the first quarter Friday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?

It can be argued the last regular-season games between the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls that mattered were… in the 2014-15 season when the Bucks were trying to finish a season with a .500 record? The longtime Central Division cohabitants haven’t really had a “rivalry” in the truest sense since the 1980s, as neither team has finished a season with a winning record together since the 1990-91 season.

That looks to be changing this season, as the Bulls have held the top spot in the Eastern Conference since the calendar turned to 2022, and 36 total days since the start of the season. Only Brooklyn (43) has held that position longer to date.

The defending champion Bucks have had their ups and downs, but a nearly complete roster helped them topple the Bulls, 94-90, Friday night. The Bucks are now 18-3 when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday play together and are 29-19 overall.

Box score: Bucks 94, Bulls 90

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“I wouldn’t say its just us three," Middleton said. "Anytime we’re missing any player it’s a huge missing piece for us. But I think we complement each other well because we do three different things on the ball and off the ball. I’m more of a shooter, mid-post, a little bit pick-and-roll play. Giannis is very dominant in the paint and with his playmaking and attracting crowds when he has the ball.

"And then Jrue, he’s little bit of everything, a little bit of post, a little bit perimeter, a little bit making plays, pick-and-roll, everything. Then we know how to play off each other.

"We know when to give each other space when to cut, when to try to find our open areas or different spots on the floor where other guys are working at.”

The trio combined for 59 points and Middleton hit a pair of key free throws with 15.8 seconds left to seal the game.

This came after Holiday picked up 7-foot Bulls center Nikola Vučević one-on-one in the post with a chance to tie the game in the final 39 seconds, and Holiday forced the big man to kick the ball out to DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three-pointer with 23 seconds left. Middleton rebounded it and it appeared most of the players thought the Bucks would call timeout, but they didn’t. Instead Middleton slowly crossed halfcourt, at which point he was fouled by Coby White.

“Jrue is very, very unique in how he can guard bigger guys,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think his center of gravity, his strength, his toughness, his hands. So, I think it’s something that we do occasionally and there’s different ways that it may end up happening and I thought his individual defense was good to force the long shot.

"Khris, I think they’re probably going to foul in that situation. I think the game clock said 22 (seconds). We had a timeout I think if the foul wasn’t called but he got fouled like three times and they eventually called it.”

The Bulls missed their final three shots.

The game was a slow, back-and-forth affair as the game was tied 15 times and the lead changed 16 times. Milwaukee finally took some semblance of control in the back half of the fourth quarter, breaking a 76-76 at the 7-minute, 34-second mark with a 9-3 run to take a 85-79 lead with 4:09 to play. They opened that run with three second-chance points, an area of the game they dominated 20-6.

"The Bucks also countered a bad shooting night (38.2 overall, 19.4% from behind the three-point line) by controlling the paint with a 42-20 advantage inside.

Chicago came into the game as the league’s best shooting team (47.5%) and the best three-point shooting team (38.8%), but Milwaukee locked them down defensively. The Bulls made just 7 of their 38 three-pointers and shot 36.5% overall.

“We talk about versatility in a lot of different ways and I think you gotta be versatile in the kind of games you can win,” Budenholzer said. “So, very proud of the guys for them to find a way to win tonight. We had to earn that.”

Like most teams, the Bulls had weathered roster tumult due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic but they hobbled into Fiserv Forum without their starting backcourt in point guard Lonzo Ball and shooting guard Zach LaVine.

MVP candidate DeRozan scored 35 points and made 17 of his 18 free throws, but Milwaukee held rookie Ayo Dosunmu (18.0 points per game over the last three) and 2019 lottery pick Coby White (17.8 points the last four) to a combined 5 of 24 shooting and 12 points. White missed all nine of his three-point shots.

The Bulls are now 28-16 and have lost six of their last eight.

Each team is now 12-12 against opponents with a .500 record or better.

“At the end of the day a win is a win,” Antetokounmpo said. “We did the right things. We created good habits tonight. There are some areas that we gotta improve but the end of the day we got the win and we’ve got to keep on moving forward and keep getting better.”

Since Budenholzer took over in 2018 the Bucks are 13-1 against the Bulls, with last season’s regular-season finale featuring the Milwaukee bench players the only victory for Chicago. The Bulls haven’t finished a season with a winning record since 2015-16 and the teams last met in the playoffs in 2015, a six-game Bulls victory.

The teams will face one another three more times before the end of the regular season, with the next meeting happening on March 4 at the United Center in Chicago.

Bobby Portis had 13 rebounds and 12 points for the Bucks while Vučević had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Matt Thomas scored 11 off the bench for Chicago.

Chicago took a 69-68 lead after three quarters thanks to making more three-pointers in the frame (three) than they did the entire first half (two), along with nine points from DeRozan. Milwaukee kept up on the scoreboard thanks to nine points from Holiday, including a buzzer-beater from 20 feet. Inconsistent shooing that began in the first half for each team continued through the period, and the Bucks weren’t helped by the fact starting guard Grayson Allen was ejected with 5:45 to go in the quarter for a Flagrant 2 foul on Bulls guard Alex Caruso.

Allen exited with five points on 2 of 5 shooting.

The Bucks led by as many as five points but DeRozan prevented them from pushing the lead further, and closed the quarter with six of the Bulls’ last nine points.

A cold-shooting first half was punctuated with free throw shooting from the two stars, with DeRozan going 10-for-10 and Antetokounmpo 6-for-8 as the Bucks took a 45-44 edge into the break. Antetokounmpo scored 16 points and had seven rebounds while DeRozan had 18 — 14 of which came in the second quarter.

The pair carried the load for their respective teams, as the Bucks shot 36.4% from the field and the Bulls shot 38.1%. The Bucks made up for a 5-for-19 effort from behind the three-point line by outscoring the Bulls 20-10 in the paint and turning five takeaways into six points. DeRozan’s performance, which included a 4-for-6 start the floor, countered a 2-for-17 start from behind the three-point line.

The lead changed 12 times and the scoreboard was knotted 10 others as neither team could string together strong offensive possessions. In fact, runs highlighted the half. The Bulls used a 10-3 run to go up 10-8 early in the first quarter, which the Bucks followed with a 10-2 run later to go up 22-16 before going into the second quarter with a 24-18 lead.

Chicago flipped the scoreboard back to its side with an 8-0 spurt early in the second quarter, which naturally the Bucks followed with a 10-4 jaunt to go up 38-34 with 4:53 left. The teams essentially traded baskets the rest of the quarter.

Portis (7 points, 6 rebounds), Middleton (5 points) and Holiday (2 points) combined to make just six of their 19 shots. The Bucks held White to 2 of 10 shooting, including 0-for-6 from behind the three-point line. Dosunmu started 1-for-5 for three points, but had four assists for Chicago.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bucks 94, Bulls 90: Milwaukee's Big Three lead the way in first victory over Chicago