The Chicago Bulls (39-25) dropped their fourth straight game Friday night at the United Center in hard-fought fashion, falling 118-112 to the Milwaukee Bucks (39-25) in a game they led by seven after three quarters.
Here are 10 observations:
1. One game after debuting the look against Atlanta, Billy Donovan rolled out Tristan Thompson and Nikola Vučević together in the Bulls’ starting frontcourt — a clear nod to the Bucks’ size, and the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Thompson indeed drew primary duties guarding Antetokounmpo, and — not so coincidentally — picked up his third personal foul at the 8:32 mark of the second quarter (which led to him sitting the remainder of the first half), his fourth at the 8:44 mark of the third, and his fifth with 7:34 left in the fourth.
In all, Thompson wasn’t a match for Antetokounmpo’s blend of length, speed and agility when the Bucks’ star committed to attacking downhill. Even operating at severe size disadvantages, Derrick Jones Jr. and Javonte Green offered more resistance.
2. As for the double-big look? With Thompson and Vučević on the court, the Bulls were outscored 18-12 in the first five-and-a-half minutes of the game, then were minus-two in the first 3:16 of the second half before Thompson picked up his fourth foul.
Donovan turned to them again down 106-103 with 3:55 to play, but the Bulls were outscored 8-6 in the next three-and-a-half minutes and gave up multiple key offensive rebounds — exactly what their pairing is supposed to prevent.
"On the rebounding piece, some of it was rotational," Donovan said. "I thought what happened was Giannis was rolling to the basket, guys were pulling in to try to help to make sure he didn't get a lob, and now the shot goes up, and now we've gotta figure out how do we block out from those situations randomly. It wasn't necessarily all the time man-on-man, where a guy just refused to block out."
The Thompson-Vučević tandem is now minus-16 across two games, and Thompson was minus-25 in 20 minutes against Milwaukee. But Donovan spoke like a coach open to continuing the experiment.
"I like it," Donovan said of the Thompson-Vučević frontcourt look. "It's not fair to those guys, in my opinion, just because they haven't been able to be together on the floor working on it. I'm kind of going on the fly a little bit with them."
"It can be something we're gonna have to build out. Because I do think some of our spacing challenges offensively need to be better."
3. This one could have easily gotten away from the Bulls in the second quarter, which began with a 22-8 Bucks surge to put them ahead 47-33 at the 6:30 mark. But the Bulls pieced together a run in the second half of the period, outpacing Milwaukee 20-10 to pull within 57-53 at the break.
Then, the Bulls then completely flipped the script in the third quarter, winning the frame 35-24 to carry an 88-81 lead into the fourth. And there’s lots of credit to be passed around for the momentum-shifting period.
DeMar DeRozan (12 points), Zach LaVine (10 points) and Vučević (7 points) combined to outscore the Bucks on their own. And Ayo Dosunmu’s sharp on-ball defense on Khris Middleton, plus a series of slick assists, helped the Bulls cause havoc and push pace en route to a couple roof-shaking highlights:
4. That brings us to Jones Jr., who leaves Friday’s game a favorite among Bulls fans.
First, there was the poster dunk on Antetokounmpo, which he followed up with a celebratory head tap. A streaking and-one layup early in the fourth sent the United Center into a frenzy, too.
And while Jones Jr. insisted after the game his hip-check foul on a Grayson Allen baseline drive — which was eventually called a Flagrant 1 — was unintentional, many fans interpreted it as a small dose of vengeance for the flagrant foul Allen committed on Alex Caruso on Jan. 21, which fractured Caruso’s wrist, requiring surgery that continues to sideline him to this day.
“I'm not a dirty player,” Jones Jr. said. “Honestly, I talked to every ref that was there today, I don't think that was a flagrant. They said I hit him in his head, I didn't feel it. I just felt him bump my hip and fall, that's all I felt.”
Asked if, in the moment, he was aware he was fouling Allen?
“Y'all trying to make it something it ain't,” Jones Jr. said. “It's basketball. I want to get a stop as much as they want to get a stop on the other end.
“What happened in Milwaukee, we didn't like it, and it's obvious we didn't like it. Nobody liked that. But I mean, I'm not gonna go out there and just try to take a man out. That's not who I am. If I get a foul in the process of trying to get a stop, then so be it. But I ain't gonna blatantly try to take that man out. He got a family to take care of. Why would I do that?”
5. Allen did face vociferous boos throughout his first game against the Bulls since the Caruso incident, and scored just seven points on 2-for-6 shooting with limited touches. He had multiple chances to ice the Bulls with dagger 3s down the stretch, but finished just 1-for-5 from behind the arc.
6. In the end, it was the Bucks’ closers that got the last laugh. Milwaukee won the fourth quarter 37-24 behind 30 combined points from Jrue Holiday (16), Antetokounmpo (10) and Middleton (four) — with Holiday also supplying sturdy defense on DeRozan (2-for-9 shooting in the final frame), and Middleton and Antetokounmpo connecting in screen-and-roll at seemingly every critical juncture.
It was that action, specifically, that motivated Donovan to turn back to Thompson in closing time, as he said he noticed the Bucks playing over the top of the undersized Green. The Bucks shot 50 percent and got 24 points between the paint (16) and foul line (eight) in the final frame.
7. DeRozan found his way to 29 points, and caught a spark from the late second to third quarter, but finished with an 11-for-30 shooting line from the field. Some praise for Holiday and Wes Matthews is due for that. Both were as good as one can be staying attached and in DeRozan’s jersey contesting midrange pull-ups, and without falling into the landing-spot foul trap.
DeRozan visited the charity stripe just five times, and shot an uncharacteristic 7-for-17 from the midrange, for the contest. In four games since his eight-game streak of 30-point/50-percent-or-better shooting outings ended, DeRozan is shooting just 40 percent from the field on 23.4 attempts per night.
8. Two themes from Thursday’s loss to Atlanta recurred against Milwaukee: A glaring disparity in the free-throw attempt department, and back-breaking offensive rebounds in the closing minutes.
Antetokounmpo, on his own, out-attempted the Bulls from the foul line 19-11 — and though he shot just 10-for-19, he drilled two big ones with 28.1 seconds to play, turning a three-point Bucks lead to five. As a team, the Bucks shot 33 free throws (shooting 66.6 percent) to the Bulls’ 11 (72.7 percent).
"If you look at Milwaukee, they're a very very experienced team. They've been together, they're seasoned, they've won a championship. They don't foul. But they're very, very physical," Donovan said. "That's the trick that I think we've gotta try to figure out. We a lot of times try to be physical and we foul."
And the Bulls conceded 12 offensive rebounds for the evening, which resulted in 18 second-chance points. The Bucks pulled down a whopping seven of their offensive boards in the fourth quarter.
9. LaVine, on the bright side, again looked spry, scoring 30 points on efficient 13-for-26 shooting. Yes, he went just 3-for-10 from 3 and 1-for-3 from the charity stripe, but was a blur off the dribble — encouraging, given he continues to play at less than 100 percent after receiving treatment for lingering soreness in his left knee.
10. This was a better wire-to-wire showing than the Bulls have had against an elite opponent in quite a while, but the loss still drops them to 6-16 against current playoff teams — and 2-14 against teams with a .600 or better win percentage. They also fall to fourth in the Eastern Conference behind Milwaukee, who leads the season series 2-0 with two matchups left.
And the schedule doesn’t let up. Next up: At the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday.