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NBA Playoffs Preview Guide Milwaukee Bucks vs Chicago Bulls: Matchup Bliss

And here we go

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Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After much jockeying among the top Eastern Conference teams, the Milwaukee Bucks found their way into the 3-6 matchup, identical to last season, but this year they’re facing their neighbors to the south, the Chicago Bulls. Of all the Eastern Conference Playoff teams, Chicago may be scuffling the most at the moment. They’re 8-15 since the All-Star Break with a -7.1 net rating. That bore out in two late season blowout Bucks wins. Chicago’s also dealt with health issues, as Lonzo Ball is out for the year, but for now they’re mostly healthy with Patrick Williams back in the fold. From my vantage point, it’s one of the easier draws in the Eastern Conference, now it’s up to the Bucks to show that they’re the superior team. Let’s break it down.

And for the view from the other side of the border, make sure to head to our brethren at BlogaBull.com.

Matchup History

When pondering the modern history of Bucks-Bulls, particularly in the Playoffs, there’s only one place to start:

Prior to Milwaukee’s surge to relevancy under Bud, few modern-era Bucks moments are more iconic than this. Not only was this one of the most lopsided games in Playoff history, but it gives us a perfect line of demarcation between young, scrappy Giannis and the evolution into the court-swallower he’s become. That series also featured the energy of a a potential 3-0 comeback, starting with game four of that series, when Jerryd Bayless hit this iconic game-winner. I was in the arena that day, and the stands were SO full of Bulls fans, my hate for their fanbase grew three sizes that day.

Unfortunately, in the years since, the Bulls have been, well, bad. The Bucks have dominated this franchise in the Bud era to the degree it’s genuinely sad to watch them play from the months of October-mid April.

Now, the names have changed for Chicago significantly this year, but the results have stayed the same. What seemed like a plucky budding rivalry in games one and two this season quickly turned into the typical running over the Bulls. A Bull dehorned is much less threatening, and as someone who has literally dehorned many bulls in my life...the Bucks have dehorned this franchise.

The latest result, a 127-106 win, featured Brook Lopez turning their defense to hamburger. If you want to reflect on the games, here are the extended recaps from those ventures.

Bottom line, it got less pretty as the year wore on. That being said, Chicago certainly offers more potential for some rivalry juice than the also-ran Pistons or Magic of year’s past. We even got a fresh infusion of some vitriol with the introduction of GraysonGate, but even the Bulls fans seemed to lose interest in booing him quite so enthusiastically as the season wore on.

One Big Question: Who Guards Giannis?

There’s a reason this question isn’t, “Who can guard Giannis?” But in this instance, we really only need two words: “Patrick Williams.” Billy Donovan telegraphed as such in the last two matchups against the Bucks, when the recently returned from injury Williams matched up with Giannis for the majority of possessions. It was none too soon either for this Bulls team. The tracking data showed that Nikola Vucevic (OOF METER) and Tristan Thompson (eek) got the primary task of chasing Milwaukee’s superstar in games one and two respectively.

Defensive tracking field goal data is too finnicky to read all that much into, but we know precisely how those first two games went. Yes, the efficiency doesn’t look all that good on paper, going 11-23 and 12-22, but Giannis also manufactured 31 free throws in those two contests. He nailed everything at the rim, but his in-between and three game weren’t working one bit. As the season wore on, he’s looked even more comfortable with those pull-up midrange shots too, so maybe the math swings back his way in these Playoff games. Either way, those two just aren’t viable options against the speed and strength of Giannis, particularly with Milwaukee’s increased emphasis in the paint after Brook returned. Thompson, ostensibly a strong person, wilts like spinach here even after giving Giannis a wide berth at the arc.

It ain’t gonna work. And when Donovan is saying this kind of stuff, Bulls fans should be worried.

Williams is a better option given he can crowd Giannis more realistically on the perimeter, which is, IMHO, still the “best” defensive strategy against him. Antetokounmpo attempted just 25 shots in the final two game combined, hitting 16 of them. His nine turnovers in the third game is a black mark, but he had as many bad passes as I’ve seen from him all season in that one, on top of leaving his feet too frequently. He needs to show patience when driving, and if the Bulls show help he has to just toss it over the top. The last few games of the regular season were basically practice runs for Giannis passing over double teams.

Regardless, even when Williams plays Giannis well, he doesn’t have the strength to hold up on a post-up and nobody on the Bulls interior strikes fear into Antetokounmpo as a help defender.

The Bulls are fortunate to have Williams back, but he won’t be able to hold up all series against a fully locked-in Antetokounmpo.

Four Factors Breakdown

Let’s take a look at the basic offensive and defensive principles for both of these teams from their four factors on CleaningTheGlass.com.

Offensive Four Factors

Team Pts/Poss Rank eFG% Rank TOV% Rank ORB% Rank FT Rate Rank
Team Pts/Poss Rank eFG% Rank TOV% Rank ORB% Rank FT Rate Rank
Milwaukee 115.6 5 55.10% 6 13.20% 10 25.80% 16 19.9 13
Chicago 113.9 14 54.50% 8 12.90% 7 23.40% 28 20.2 9

The Bulls actually have a few things going for them here! While their offense is middling, they were a highly proficient shooting team all season. They ranked near the top of the league in terms of three-point percentage...but they barely took any from that range. Meanwhile, they also protect the ball with a low turnover percentage and they get to the line at a top-ten rate. Unfortunately, several of those advantages are mitigated by Milwaukee’s defensive statistics.

Defensive Four Factors

Team Opp. Pts/Poss Rank Opp. eFG% Rank Opp. TOV% Rank DRB% Rank Opp. FT Rate Rank
Team Opp. Pts/Poss Rank Opp. eFG% Rank Opp. TOV% Rank DRB% Rank Opp. FT Rate Rank
Milwaukee 112 14 53.90% 19 13.00% 26 23.90% 2 16.4 2
Chicago 114.1 22 54.40% 22 13.20% 23 25.20% 8 20 20

Turnovers/Free Throws: Milwaukee doesn’t try to manufacture turnovers on their own, nor do they put their opponents on the line. It’s been well documented by Eric Nehm at The Athletic how Milwaukee is hyper-cognizant of not letting DeMar DeRozan get to the line. Maintaining discipline against the Bulls volume shooter is step one to preventing the Bulls from finding offensive rhythm. Coach Bud and his players saw DeRozan’s 18 FTA in their first matchup, then held him to five, then zero, then eight. Chicago is not nearly as disciplined, and while Giannis may not get the greatest whistle given postseason play tends to feature more swallowing, I expect him to be able to manufacture points aplenty from the charity stripe.

Rebounding: While the Bulls also defensively rebound at a top-ten rate, I’m going to be watching the Bucks vigor on the offensive glass very closely. As I’ve documented many times this season, they rode a 29.9% offensive rebound rate in the Playoffs last year all the way to a title. Can they sniff that ridiculous figure again this year? Here’s a solid first litmus test.

Shooting: Remember this? Somehow, Mitchell’s headline held true throughout the Playoffs, and the Bucks still won a title. Milwaukee boasted the eighth best mark from three this season, 37%, and I’m steeling myself for the inevitable precipitous fall of that figure. It’s even freakier given they’ve leaned more into the three ball this season rather than working their way to the rim, with 39.8% of their shots coming from deep, sixth highest percentage. But not so fast my friend!

Since Brook Lopez returned on March 14, Milwaukee’s taken 36.5% of their shots from deep (16th highest), and 33.4% at the rim (12th highest as opposed to their season-long 21st ranking). Keeping that up should mitigate any potential three-point shooting flux they find themselves in, and there was no better time to increase their shooting at the rim than right before this Bulls series.

Chicago allows the highest percentage of shots at the rim in the league, 36.5%. That means Brook and Giannis should be able to rampage the paint. And while the Bulls have a top ten mark in terms of opponent percentage at the rim, we saw how that worked out in the latter two games between these two when the Bucks giants were parading to the tin, as they decisively won the points in the paint battle. The Bulls allow the second fewest percentage of shots from long range as well, they’re intent on driving teams off the line, which you can see quite often in their matchups when Bucks pumpfake and then drive into their soft underbelly. Look for more of that, and especially drive and kicks that lead to ball movement around the perimeter.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago does precisely the opposite of what we’ve seen normally deflate this Bucks team: shoot threes. They’re dead last with just 30.4% of their jumpers coming from deep. The midrange, especially long midrange, is their specialty and one can expect to see plenty of Vucevic, DeRozan and Caruso attempting those very shots. They’re more than proficient at them, hitting a top-five rate, but the Bucks are going to live with those shots over and over versus letting them dive to the rim.

Bud’s Rotation

Given all season long we’ve hemmed and hawed over getting this dude or that lad more minutes, trying to predict how Bud will finally approach it in this series should be a fun exercise for the folks at home. In any one playoff game, there are 240 minutes up for grabs (5 players x 48 minutes). I honestly don’t see all that many in-series adjustments from a personnel standpoint required of Bud, so here’s how I expect an average game to play out:

Guard

  • Jrue Holiday: 40 minutes
  • Wes Matthews: 22 minutes
  • Grayson Allen: 20 minutes
  • Jevon Carter (or George Hill): 10 minutes

Forward

  • Khris Middleton: 38 minutes
  • Pat Connaughton: 25 minutes
  • Giannis Antetokoumpo: 38 minutes

Big

  • Brook Lopez: 27 minutes
  • Bobby Portis: 20 minutes

Series Prediction

I generally don’t like being this dismissive of an opponent, particularly when I’m still curious how much our team will be able to “flip the switch” in the postseason, but I just can’t see this going any other way than a Milwaukee win. The Bulls perimeter defense can’t cover up for their deficiencies in the interior, Caruso doesn’t have a chance to match the strength of Jrue Holiday, Giannis and Brook can run roughshod in the paint. Perhaps DeRozan gets hot enough to win a game, but even when he scored 40 in the final regular season matchup, Chicago lost by 21. It’s a mismatch on paper and in the numbers.

Bucks in five.


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