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Bulls vs. Bucks Preview: I-94 rivalry resumes with Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose in Milwaukee

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Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

What, you thought the schedule was going to get easy?

The Bucks start a tricky back-to-back at home against the Bulls on Tuesday night, the teams' first meeting in Milwaukee since last spring's playoff-ending 54 point loss. A date with the Wizards in D.C. 24 hours later makes for an unenviable two-step, but the more sobering thing is the lack of gimmes the Bucks face thereafter.

After their trip to Washington, the Bucks return home to face the Hawks on Friday, then go on the road for four games in Charlotte, Miami, Houston and New Orleans. In the five weeks between now and their February 22 home game against the Lakers, the Bucks play just one team beneath them in the standings -- and that's Anthony Davis' Pelicans in New Orleans.

It's not to say that none of those games are winnable; the majority are against the huge group of good-but-not-great teams currently ahead of them in the East, with zero games against the Warriors, Spurs, Cavs and Thunder. Moreover, the Bucks' road-heavy schedule so far means their remaining schedule 24 of their remaining 43 games will be at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Still, the next month provides a sobering reminder of how few patsies there are in the NBA this season, and how difficult that makes life for an underachieving team like the Bucks.

Bucks Update

Can anything save the Bucks' defense? It certainly doesn't feel like it, not when you consider a) how consistently bad they've been all season and b) the fact that they've actually been getting worse of late.

Consider that last year the Bucks held opponents to around 102 points per 100 possessions (using Basketball Reference's pace metric); in the last 14 games they've managed that mark or better just three times, and they've allowed more than 112 an astonishing ten times in that span. No rebounding, fewer turnovers, lots of paint touches and tons of open threes are the obvious issues, though that doesn't leave much else for the Bucks to hang their hat on. They generally look like a group content to try to outscore opponents, a development that perhaps shouldn't be surprising -- the worse a team does, the more likely guys are to focus their energies on the "fun" end of the floor. Here are the Bucks' monthly ranks for some key metrics, none of which provide any hint of improvement (via NBA.com/stats):

The Bucks will likely be shorthanded in the backcourt again, with O.J. Mayo (hamstring) a question mark after missing Sunday's game and Jerryd Bayless (ankle) still recovering from his second sprain of his left ankle. Greivis Vasquez is rumored to be on track for a return within the month, but there's been no official update from the team since his surgery in December.

Bulls Scouting Report

The Bulls had won six in a row before Saturday's 120-105 loss in Atlanta, and they followed that up with last night's disappointing 114-100 home loss to the Wizards (the Bucks' opponents tomorrow). So Fred Hoiberg's club is good, but you can't help but feel like something is missing. On the one hand, Jimmy Butler is a star, Pau Gasol continues to put up big numbers (16.4 pts, 10.8 rebs), and even Derrick Rose is coming around a bit in the last five games(18.5 points on 55.5% true shooting, albeit with 4.3 turnovers and only 3.8 assists) after a horrible start to the season.

But the Bulls also seem like they're a clear cut below the Cavs in the East, and it's not clear they'll be able to separate from the rest of the chasing pack over the coming weeks and months. While their defense has actually been slightly better since the departure of Tom Thibodeau (1st in eFG% allowed, 6th overall efficiency), Hoiberg's plan to open up the offense has so far fallen flat -- entering tonight's game, the Bulls are essentially tied with the Bucks for 23rd overall. Also worth noting is their home-heavy schedule to date: 22 home games (16-6) vs. just 14 road games (6-8), with only Miami having played more home games thus far.

With Mike Dunleavy still out following offseason back surgery and Tony Snell providing little consistency off the bench, the Bulls could be primed for a trade over the next month, especially given their logjam at the 4/5 spots with Gasol, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, rookie Bobby Portis and small-ball option Nikola Mirotic.

Standings Update

The Bucks remain in 13th spot in the East, 5.5 games adrift of the 8th spot. On the flip side, they're eighth in the lottery standings, albeit with a mass of teams huddled fairly close. The four teams ahead of them (ie with better picks) are all within 2.5 games, with the only certainty seeming to be that the Sixers, Lakers, and Nets will be the bottom three in some order. Their matchup in New Orleans a week from Saturday thus takes on added significance.

Required Reading

Marc Lasry remained upbeat in an interview published with the Journal-Sentinel on Monday, but I wouldn't take that as a sign the Bucks are on the verge of making a big "win now" trade or whatever. The Bucks still need to sell tickets for 24 more home games this year, and a critical owner wouldn't help anything at this point. I think it's likely the Bucks don't move any of their "core" players in the next month, but given their defensive problems it's worth asking whether they'll ever be able to make them fit on the court.

On the Bulls: Blog a Bull

2015/16 NBA Season
Milwaukee bucks.vc6d60d4
(15-24, 10-7 home)
vs.
Chicago bulls.v1b392e9
(22-14, 6-8 road)
January 12, 2016
BMO Harris Bradley Center | Milwaukee, WI
7:00 CT
FS Wisconsin / NBA TV | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Michael Carter-Williams PG Derrick Rose
Khris Middleton SG Jimmy Butler
Giannis Antetokounmpo SF Taj Gibson
Jabari Parker PF Nikola Mirotic
Greg Monroe C Pau Gasol
2014/15 Advanced Stats
93.8 (24th) Pace 96.6 (10th)
103.5 (24th) ORtg 103.6 (23rd)
109.9 (29th) DRtg 102.1 (6th)