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Bulls-Bucks Playoff Preview: Can Young Bucks Challenge Chicago?

Even though the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks have been in the same conference for ages, amazingly this is the first time the two teams will face off in the playoffs since 1990. The Bulls and Bucks entered the season with complete opposite expectations. Chicago, with a healthy Derrick Rose (yeah, right) and key additions in Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, were expected to be title contenders. Milwaukee, coming off the worst record in the league, just wanted to develop its young players with new head coach Jason Kidd at the helm. For neither team the season went as expected, with the Bulls suffering from inconsistency and the Bucks making a complete turnaround from last year. This first-round matchup might not be the prettiest in the league, but the Bulls and Bucks are guaranteed to be as physical and intense as any series this postseason. Here’s what you can expect for the 3 vs. 6 matchup in the Eastern Conference.

HOW CHICAGO GOT HERE

The Bulls reached the 50-win plateau for the first time since 2011-12 with a team that’s stacked on paper. Rose, despite undergoing yet another knee procedure, managed to play 51 games this season, his most since his MVP campaign. Gasol, who was the Bulls’ offseason splash, performed better than anyone expected at the age of 34, starting the All-Star Game on the opposing side of his brother. Jimmy Butler made the “The Leap,” improving his numbers across the board while maintaining his hustle on the defensive end. Mirotic produced a Rookie of the Year-type campaign after becoming the Bulls’ best player during the month of March when Rose and Butler were nursing injuries. Yet, despite of all of this unexpected good stuff, the Bulls could never put together a consistent stretch of dominant basketball.

Chicago improved immensely on offense with the breakout of Butler and the new pieces around him. The Bulls jumped from tied for 27th in offensive efficiency last year to 10th this season. Having Rose for over the half the season helped, but this offensive leap was more a product of Gasol and Butler’s contributions. Aaron Brooks also packed a punch off the bench, leading the Bulls with a 106.9 offensive rating, and Chicago scored 4.1 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court, per NBA.com. Mirotic also ignited the Bulls’ offense whenever he played power forward, something he hasn’t had the luxury to do as often with Taj Gibson back from injury. Unfortunately for the Bulls, this offensive leap came at the cost of defense.

The Bulls plummeted from the second-best defensive team a year ago to 11th this season. Joakim Noah, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, has taken a major step back this season after offseason knee surgery. Gasol has also struggled defensively whenever he’s forced to move, which happens quite often in pick-and-roll situations. Gasol ranked in just the 56th percentile guarding the roll man in pick-and-roll situations this season, according to Synergy.  The bigger problem for the Bulls is the pick-and-roll ball handler, where Chicago ranked last in the league. Gasol and Noah have been an awkward pairing on both ends all season, with Noah forced to guard stretch 4’s on a gimpy knee and Gasol failing to help with regularity. In their fairness, Butler, who was named to the All-Defensive Second Team last season, has taken a step back defensively as well. The Bulls haven’t been a cohesive unit defensively all season, and there’s little reason to think it’ll happen come playoff time.

BULLS X-FACTOR

Mirotic is a matchup nightmare. It’s so uncommon for a 6-foot-10 player to possess the quickness, ball handling skills, shooting prowess and foul-drawing ability of the bearded assassin. Mirotic cooled off in April after carrying the team in March, shooting just 35.1 percent in eight games, but the rookie will be depended on in this series. Mirotic is the perfect player to find the spots in a stout Bucks defense. If Milwaukee fails to stick a good defender on him at all times, Mirotic is a master at exploiting mismatches. Expect Mirotic to take and make some big shots in this series.

HOW MILWAUKEE GOT HERE

The Bucks finished with a league-worst record of 15-67 last season. Bring in Kidd and an improved Giannis Antetokounmpo, and all of a sudden the Bucks are in business. Milwaukee improved by 26 wins this season with a record of 41-41, and in turn grabbed the No. 6 seed in the East. The Bucks’ suffocating defense is the main reason for the massive improvement.
Milwaukee utilizes its ridiculous length and mobility to wreak havoc on the defensive end. The Warriors are the only team in the league that allows fewer points per 100 possessions than the Bucks. (99.3) Milwaukee is the top PnR ball handler and ISO defense, second-best transition D and also a top six spot-up defense, according to Synergy. Kidd has an unprecedented amount of length and athletes to play with defensively, and they force a ton of turnovers.

Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton and the “Greek Freak,” none of whom are frontcourt players, are all 6-foot-6 or taller. Middleton, who like Butler experienced a breakout season, was the Bucks’ top performer defensively. The third-year shooting guard amassed a ridiculous DRPM of 4.08, ranking eighth in the league and tops among shooting guards. His overall RPM of 6.47 ranked eighth among NBA players, proving how impactful Middleton has been for the Bucks on both ends this season. Milwaukee’s combination of length and speed is imposing on defense, but not so much on the other end.

The Bucks ranked 25th in offensive efficiency (100.5), ranking dead last among playoff teams. Milwaukee’s offense has fallen even more post-All-Star break to a pitiful 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a number that would’ve ranked 28th in the league over the course of the season. The acquisition of Carter-Williams, who has an ugly shot chart, has played a hand in the Bucks’ offensive struggles. There’s also a serious lack of spacing whenever the Greek Freak, MCW and Zaza Pachulia share the floor. Ersan Ilyasova, Middleton and Jared Dudley provide some floor spacing, but none of them exactly strike fear in defenders. The Bucks will have to be ready to defend in this series because they don’t possess enough firepower offensively to keep up with the Bulls.

BUCKS X-FACTOR

Although MCW is an awful shooter, he provides plenty in other areas of the game. Carter-Williams’s length will be a factor against Rose and Brooks in this series. MCW terrorized Rose in the third game of his career last season. The then-rookie put up 26 points, 10 assists and three steals while holding Rose to a meager 13 points and eight turnovers on 4-0f-14 shooting. Rose struggled to deal with MCW’s length on both ends of the floor and couldn’t gain separation from the rookie. MCW killed the Bulls once again this season, this time against the pint-sized Brooks. Kidd capitalized on the disparity in height between Carter-Williams and Brooks by feeding the ball into the post until the Bulls were forced to double. MCW finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds while Brooks shot 4-of-11 from the field. Rose will have to be up to the task of playing against Carter-Williams, because Brooks doesn’t stand a chance defensively.

SEASON SERIES OUTCOME: Bulls 3-1

The Bulls cruised to a 3-1 series win over the Bucks this season thanks to a huge size advantage on the inside. Gasol dominated Milwaukee this season, averaging 24.3 points and 13.3 rebounds while shooting 54.7 percent from the floor. This included Gasol’s career-night against the Bucks, when he finished with 46 points and 18 rebounds. It’s worth noting that the Bucks defeated the Bulls, 95-91, on April 1 in the lone game MCW played against Chicago this season.

PREDICTION: Bulls in 5

The Bulls’ size and talent will be too much to handle for the Bucks. Although the Bucks are a stellar defensive unit, they struggle to rebound (rank 19th in rebound rate) and can’t score. On the other hand, the Bulls are a solid overall rebounding team (rank fifth in rebound rate) with a multitude of scoring options. Milwaukee lacks a go-to player who can be the difference in this series. The Bucks are also best defensively in areas the Bulls seldom use offensively. (transition and ISO) Chicago will also essentially be home in every game this series as BMO Harris Bradley Center might as well be named United Center North. Milwaukee is too tough to get swept, but Chicago is too talented to lose more than one game in this series.

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