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Bucks vs. Bulls Preview: I-94 rivalry resumes with Jabari Parker's first pro game in Chicago

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Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

A pair of road wins had the Milwaukee Bucks trending up as they wrapped up a four-game road trip. But as they are oft to do, the San Antonio Spurs slapped that momentum to the floor and ground it into a fine dust, handing the Bucks their third-largest margin of defeat of the season last night. Milwaukee now goes back on the road with a quick jaunt south to meet the Chicago Bulls in the first matchup between these teams this season.

Bucks Update

After beginning 2016 with a comeback victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, those good New Year's Vibes evaporated at the hands of the Spurs, who systematically dismantled Milwaukee in the usual fashion. That's not overly surprising or even particularly worrisome, though Jerryd Baylessrenewed ankle troubles are concerning.

Generally speaking, though, Milwaukee has just been going about their business the last week or so, winning and losing games in largely the same way they've been winning and losing games all year. Over their last four games, the Bucks have an offensive rating of 112.4, which is a terrific number that would surely be cause for celebration if it wasn't accompanied by a ghastly 117.3 defensive rating over that same span.

The trouble with any lingering playoff aspirations the Bucks might have (and to be clear, that's an acknowledgement, not an endorsement) continues to be the improved competitiveness of the Eastern Conference. Even with a couple recent wins, Milwaukee moved no closer to a playoff spot because nearly everybody in the East continues to play even, at least. Only two teams ahead of the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings (Indiana and Charlotte) have an equal or worse record over their last ten games. Milwaukee currently sits five and a half games back of the 8th-seeded Detroit Pistons with four other teams in pursuit ahead of them.

Now the Bucks turn to face the conference's #2 team in Chicago, who are playing about as any team in the East. It's the first meeting with the Bulls since Chicago took down the Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs last season, a series that ended with an embarrassing 120-66 blowout loss at home. Tonight is also the first trip home for Jabari Parker as a professional--Parker missed the Bucks' games in Chicago last year after injuring his knee.

Bulls Scouting Report

The first question that always needs addressing when talking about the Chicago Bulls is, what's up with Derrick Rose?

Well, although he's listed as questionable for tonight's contest, Rose is expected to play after missing three straight games with right leg injuries. He hasn't been particularly effective this season, but Rose played well in his last three games before this latest absence, averaging 21.3 points per game on 54.4% true shooting. In 18 career games against the Bucks, Rose has averaged 19.9 points and 8.7 assists.

Chicago has been remarkably effective in close games this season, with a 6-3 record in games decided by three points or less. That's the most wins of any team in league in such games, and you can choose to view it one of two ways. On one hand, you could say it reflects the Bulls experience, savvy execution, and strong coaching. Alternatively, it's just dumb luck contributing to a record that's two wins ahead of their predicted total, according to average margin of victory. That latter theory earns some support from Chicago's measly 5-4 record in games decided by 10 points or more, the worst such record of any playoff team other than the Houston Rockets (who have a bafflingly bad 3-9 record in blowouts!).

In short, the Bulls are good, of course, but maybe not quite as good as their record (and probably public opinion) suggests. They still know how to defend, and they've got a two-way star in Jimmy Butler who's averaging almost 22 points a game with excellent ancillary numbers to boot.

Injury Update

Jerryd Bayless is out after re-injuring his ankle versus San Antonio. For the Bulls, Joakim Noah (shoulder) and Mike Dunleavy (back) are both out.

Daily Fantasy Tip

Normally something of a wasteland in terms of fantasy output, the shooting guard position boasts the best fantasy bets for each team in tonight's matchup. Butler needs no herald of his abilities, he's been terrific all season long. But Khris Middleton's current level of play stacks up nicely. Middleton has been contributing in a variety of fashions while boosting his scoring output considerably. Though he's fallen off in the last two games after back-to-back 30-plus performances, Khris still managed a cool 19 points against San Antonio in a game where he failed to sink any of his four 3-point attempts. Though he'll be matchup up with Butler, a lockdown defender, for much of the game, Middleton still represents one of the best options in this game.

SB Nation's partner FanDuel is running a FREE money fantasy basketball league for new members tonight. Half of the league wins cash. Join now!

(Editor's Note: all the opinions expressed here are my own. FanDuel gave me some cash to play daily fantasy games)

On the Bulls: Blog a Bull

2015/16 NBA Season
Milwaukee bucks.vc6d60d4
(14-22, 5-15 road)
vs.
Chicago bulls.v1b392e9
(20-12, 14-5 home)
January 5, 2016
United Center | Chicago, IL
7:00 CT
FS Wisconsin / NBA TV | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Michael Carter-Williams PG Kirk Hinrich
Khris Middleton SG Jimmy Butler
Giannis Antetokounmpo SF Taj Gibson
Jabari Parker PF Nikola Mirotic
Greg Monroe C Pau Gasol
2014/15 Advanced Stats
94.0 (23rd) Pace 96.2 (12th)
103.3 (24th) ORtg 103.4 (23rd)
109.6 (30th) DRtg 101.4 (5th)