Chicago Bulls: Bulls live to fight another game after beating Bucks

Observations from the Chicago Bulls’ 102-98 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in a must-have game with only five left to go.

1. Jimmy Butler brought it again, and this time, it paid off. 
For the second straight game, Jimmy Butler played like a star in a game the Bulls really needed to have, a day after registering his first career triple-double—a monster one at that (28 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists)—against the Pistons. While he didn’t duplicate the feat against the Bucks, he was arguably just as impressive, scoring 25 points on 10-11 (91%) shooting, adding five rebounds and eight more assists. He did just about anything and everything he could to win the Bulls this game, attacking the basket and guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo in crunch time.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the Pistons loss and this win? He did a much better job of moving the ball, especially when it matter most. After a few baskets of his own, Butler attacked the basket with 1:16 left in the game with the shot clock winding down and dished it off to a wide-open Justin Holiday for a corner jumper when the defense collapsed on him. Obviously, his clutch jumper with 51.7 seconds left was also a big play at the end of the game, but little things like him getting that assist instead of forcing a bad shot—as he did twice late against Detroit—was probably why they won this game instead of losing it.

2. Nikola Mirotic got going again.

This was a HUGE difference between the Pistons and Bucks games. Against Detroit, the Bulls’ best outside shooters didn’t have much of an impact. In particular, Nikola Mirotic, who has been absolutely on fire lately, only attempted seven shots. In this one, he was 6-15 from the field, including 3-9 from deep. While those numbers don’t seem overly impressive, Mirotic also made all four of his free throw attempts to contribute 19 points, which is huge compared to just 6 points the night before.

Also, while Mike Dunleavy (who has struggled mightily lately) only got four shots and Doug McDermott only got five, which was about what they had against the Pistons, they parlayed those attempts into more points (16 combined vs. Bucks compared to 6 combined vs. Pistons). The Chicago bench as a unit outscored Milwaukee’s 42-22, scoring 12 more points than the previous night against Detroit. If you’re looking for one big difference maker in this one, though, Mirotic is your guy.

Also worth noting: Mirotic got about 12 minutes more run in this one (35 min. vs. about 24 the night before), which likely means that Hoiberg was trusting him to stay on the court defensively in addition to riding his increased scoring. While he was necessarily great whenever he had to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, he did manage to pull down six rebounds to prove some impact on the defensive boards.

3. The Bulls kept their composure late. 

The Pistons game was set up almost perfectly for the Bulls to seize control in the last half of the 4th quarter. They got Andre Drummond out of the game with 5:23 left with the Bulls only down three points by employing the good old Hack-a-Drummond strategy until Stan van Gundy replaced him. They kept the rebound battle essentially even (47 to Detroit’s 45). The Pistons even gave the Bulls a couple extra possessions in the 4th quarter via bad shots and turnovers. But a complete lack of ball movement, some lazy transition defense, and Butler’s questionable 3-point attempt when a quick layup or dunk would have sufficed (they still had a timeout left) squandered every opportunity Detroit gave them.

The Bulls didn’t make the same mistake against the Bucks. They did have a few issues early in the 4th quarter, namely a few long scoring gaps reminiscent of the night before. The difference: throughout that entire time, they kept moving the basketball rather than turning things into a stagnant two-man game with Butler and Gasol. And eventually, as it did earlier in the game, this strategy got them the points they needed to put the game away, whether they converted jumpers and layups or whether they got fouled and made shots at the free throw line at help pad the lead. Also, the Bulls never trailed in this game, getting ahead at the start and keeping the Bucks in the rear view.

Summed up:
The Bulls clearly came out ready to fight for the 8th seed in the East, and they did so once again without Rose (elbow) and Taj Gibson (fractured rib). In the end, though, the golden opportunity they let slip through their fingers against the Pistons still lingers as they only gained a half-game on the Pistons (two games back) and are still two games behind the Indiana Pacers after they outlasted the New York Knicks. With five games left, including games against Miami and Cleveland, this season isn’t over yet, but it’s definitely on life support.

Khari Thompson

I'm currently a graduate student studying biology at the University of Notre Dame that follows sports (especially the Bears and Bulls) less like a hobby and more like a second job. Also a fan of all things dinosaurs. And Tolkien. Twitter: @kdthompson5

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