It’s safe to say the Bulls flipped that script in Game 2, a 114-110 victory that tied the series 1-1 and stole homecourt advantage from the defending champions ahead of Game 3 in Chicago on Friday.
Here are five observations:
DeMar DeRozan delivered on his promise to not shoot 6-for-25 again, to say the least.
Not only did DeRozan tally a new playoff career-high with 41 points (16-for-31 shooting), he did it on familiarly prolific shooting from his preferred zone — the midrange. DeRozan got 20 points between the paint and 3-point line, challenging every Bucks defender in his path, from Wesley Matthews to Jrue Holiday to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Many of those makes were heavily contested, and many came when the stakes were the highest; DeRozan notched 24 points in the second half and 10 in the fourth quarter.
Even as he struggled to a 9-for-27 shooting line in Game 1 — 2-for-10 from 3-point range — Nikola Vučević’s importance to the Bulls’ upset chances was pronounced. His impact swelled in Game 2.
For one, he punished the Bucks’ heavy shift defense by draining 4-of-8 from 3-point range and a handful of midrangers, finishing with 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting. He lived on the glass to the tune of 13 rebounds. And he defended solidly throughout, even while falling into foul trouble.
Plus, along with DeRozan, Vučević was at the center of a number of critical plays down the stretch — from the 3-pointer with 2:30 left in the fourth that thrust the Bulls ahead 110-102, to his final rebound, which came on an offensive tap-out to extend what would end up being the game-icing possession inside the final 20 seconds.
In all, DeRozan, Vučević and LaVine combined to score 85 of the Bulls' 114 points and shot 33-for-62 while doing so. Each player shot better than 50 percent from the field one game after going 21-for-71 as a trio.
Disruptive defense — again
The Bulls knew they couldn’t rely on the Bucks to shoot 10-for-38 from 3-point range, as they did in Game 1, for the rest of the series. Milwaukee didn’t in this one. They finished the evening 45.8 percent from the field and 14-for-36 (38.9 percent) from beyond the arc.
Still, the Bulls imposed their will defensively throwing multiple looks at Milwaukee, including some effective, ball-pressuring double-teams.
The Bucks committed 10 turnovers in the first half, seven of which came off Bulls steals. That allowed the Bulls to push pace for easy offense, and dominate the possession battle; they took nine more field-goal attempts in the first half than the Bucks, which added up to a 14-point advantage despite both teams shooting well.
The Bucks cleaned their ball security up a bit in the second half, but finished with 15 giveaways (off of which the Bulls scored 19 points) to give them 36 through this series’ first two games. This is the identity the Bulls thrived off of during their hot start to the season. Even without Lonzo Ball, they have rediscovered it at the perfect time.
Neither team’s bench was particularly impactful. The Bulls got 10 points from their reserve unit while riding DeRozan (44), LaVine (43), Alex Caruso (38) and Vučević (36) 35-plus minutes apiece.
But in the non-star-scorer department, the Bulls’ “role players” won the day.
First and foremost, there was Caruso hitting three 3-pointers and slinging 10 assists at the offensive end while making winning play after winning play defensively. Those spanned from a key block of Brook Lopez floater with just over five minutes to play, to pulling down a key offensive rebound with 35 seconds left, to drawing a game-sealing charge on Antetokounmpo.
Then, there was Patrick Williams responding from a dreary playoff debut to tally 10 points and nine rebounds. More than numbers, though, his decisiveness driving closeouts and taking advantage of jump-shot opportunities when they presented marked improvement at a time of dire need.
Billy Donovan was forced to call the first timeout of Game 1 after 93 game seconds in an attempt to stem a furious 9-0 Bucks run out of the gate. In this one, roles reversed, and it was Mike Budenholzer in that position at the 10:13 mark of the first quarter.
The Bulls commanded tempo and the scoreboard for much of the contest from there, leading by 14 at halftime and by as many as 18 in the third quarter. But the Bucks engineered multiple runs that the Bulls had to weather en route to victory.
One charge came in the closing minutes of the third quarter, when Milwaukee energized the Fiserv Forum by engineering a 15-2 run between the 3:42 and 1:11 mark to slice a 79-63 Bulls lead to 81-77. Giannis Antetokounmpo took over at both ends by stifling Bulls actions defensively and attacking the rim with force. Khris Middleton converted a four-point play after Vučević fouled him on a stepback 3-pointer.
Momentum was cresting — before the Bulls responded to push their lead to 87-80 entering the fourth.
Then, there were multiple Bucks surges in the final frame. Always, there was a response, from 3-pointers by LaVine and Vučević, to timely steals, to DeRozan buckets and more.
We've got a series, folks.
Next up: Back to Chicago for Game 3 on Friday.