Staving off elimination in Game 4 was a pleasant surprise for the Milwaukee Bucks, and it came in exciting fashion. Stealing another do-or-die game, this time on the road, would be a much tougher task.
Thankfully for the Bucks, Michael Carter-Williams and Khris Middleton were up to the challenge. Now the Young Bucks get another shot at the Bulls in front of their (hopefully swollen) home crowd, and nobody is going to be underestimating them this time.
After struggling through the first four games of the series, Carter-Williams delivered the biggest performance of his young NBA career with 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists on 10-15 shooting to lead the Bucks to a stunning 94-88 win over the Bulls in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Playoffs first-round series. Middleton added 21 points on 8-16 shooting (2-4 3PT) and four steals, setting the tone early with a 13-point first quarter. Overall, the Bucks held Chicago to just 34.4% shooting, a critical defensive performance in light of a clean game for the Bulls in most every other facet -- Chicago had 17 offensive rebounds, outscored Milwaukee 22-16 at the free-throw line, and only turned the ball over 13 times.
Facing a hostile crowd and high stakes, Milwaukee's greatest hope was to simply out-work the Bulls and catch a few breaks, just enough to steal a game on the road. Riding the energy of a thrilling last-second victory in Game 4, Milwaukee looked enthusiastic and ready to play. Failings in execution looked like symptoms of inexperience, not malaise. The Bucks absorbed a few good shots from Chicago in the first half, weathering an extended first-quarter run by Chicago and answering a couple of big Chicago baskets with clutch shots of their own.
The story remained largely the same in the second half. Milwaukee's energy never waned, and they managed to frustrate the Bulls consistently on offense while making enough critical shots of their own to hold the lead. It was refreshing to see young guys like MCW and Middleton lead the charge this time, while players like John Henson and Giannis Antetokounmpo also got in on the action. Giannis still wasn't great (5/12 fg, 11 pts, 4 blocks), but he was able to work in the post for a few buckets, and his layup midway through the 4th quarter forced a Chicago timeout.
Ultimately, and fittingly, it was the defense that closed out the game for Milwaukee. The Bucks called a timeout to rest after a John Henson basket gave them a 90-83 lead with 3:15 to go and were able to refocus after giving up a couple of open jumpers. In the final three minutes of the game, Pau Gasol was the only Bull to score, and his 5 points in that span wouldn't have been enough to save Chicago had the Bucks themselves failed to score at all.
That was just a continuation of a defensive effort that shut down Chicago's stars all game long. Derrick Rose struggled on both ends of the floor, failing to contain Carter-Williams, bricking 15 of his 20 shots, and turning the ball over 6 times. Jimmy Butler had a nice box score line (20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals) but was also lacking in efficiency, shooting 5-21 from the floor.
Milwaukee now returns home for Game 6 and a chance at putting a real scare into Chicago. No team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series, but Milwaukee is brimming with confidence right now and looks prepared to give it their best shot.
- They say basketball is a game of runs, and that was certainly the case in the first quarter. Milwaukee opened the game with a 9-0 run keyed by their swarming defense. Chicago called a timeout and then responded with a 21-4 run of their own, building an 8-point lead with 1:13 to go in the quarter. But Milwaukee bounced back nicely behind Khris Middleton, who scored 8 points during a 10-1 run for the Bucks that took just 53 seconds.
- With Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler playing at a generally high level throughout the series, the Bucks were always going to need Chicago's supporting cast to have an off night if they were going to steal this game. Some of that comes from simple good luck in the form of poor shooting by Chicago's offense, but also from a disciplined defense that doesn't overreact to Chicago's stars and give up good shots for the rest of the lineup. Milwaukee did one better, holding down everybody except Pau Gasol in terms of scoring efficiency.
Bucks only forced 13 turnovers, but rotations were the crispest we've seen all series. Bulls missed shots, but not many open looks either.— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) April 28, 2015
- The Bucks lost Michael Carter-Williams for a few minutes in the third quarter after he rolled his ankle coming down from a shot attempt. This time there would be no sarcastic comments about it "not really being a loss" -- this was a genuinely terrific game for MCW. He attacked the basket early in the game, taking advantage of poor communication by the Bulls and an ineffective first line of defense by Derrick Rose. He was efficient as a playmaker as well: six of those assists went for layups or three-pointers. MCW's best-looking shots were a pair of bankers near the rim where he used his size and leaping ability to hang above the defense and create space.
- Henson collected 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter and had 14 in the game, a feat that really can't be overstated given the advantage Chicago has had on the glass in this series. None was bigger than this one, and he added a big block against Rose in the paint late -- one of six Rose shots the Bucks swatted on the night.