Reality came calling for the Bulls, and it came in the form of the Milwaukee Bucks. A two-game winning streak was snapped in the form of a 126-96 loss in which the Bucks led by as many as 32. Their 11th straight in the I-94 Rivalry.
With the result, the Bulls move to 2-4. Here’s what stood out:
Patrick Williams gets a tough assignment
Patrick Williams, the Bulls’ 19-year-old forward, began this game guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time reigning MVP. And did so for multiple stretches in this one.
Antetokounmpo settled for a pull-up midrange jumper on the first possession, and got off a slow shooting start. But he gave Williams a few true welcome to the NBA moments. An extendo-armed slam in his grill: A graceful and-one finish over him in transition. Knocking him on his rear in a post-up midway through the third quarter.
Donovan said he thought the assignment would be a good learning experience for Williams. The rookie concurred, while stating a career goal of guarding "the best players, night in night out."
"My chest is on fire right now just from the shoulders that he gave me," Williams said. "He doesn’t really compare to any other guy that I’ve had to guard yet this season. But the next time we play them, I hope to guard him again and do better."
By the end of the night, Antetokounmpo got his. He finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and blocks apiece, and 18 trips to the free throw line (though he made just 10). Countless of his drives bent the Bulls’ defense to allow wide-open Bucks 3-point attempts. They were infernally hot from deep throughout, just three nights after breaking the single-game NBA record for 3s in a game against the Miami Heat.
Ball movement stalls
One night after notching 34 assists in a win over the (porous) Washington Wizards, the Bulls slung just 18 against 21 turnovers in this one. A step back offensively was to be expected against the uber-stingy Bucks, but it’s a step back nonetheless. And a marked one.
"We didn't have any level of stamina or endurance to constantly cut and move and screen. And I thought their physicality knocked us off cuts. I thought their physicality had us cutting in different directions," head coach Billy Donovan said. "We played an incredibly played ball movement game last game against Washington, and we did not have that today. And we could have had that today. But we're gonna have to fight through some of the physicality more so than we did today."
Coby White, in particular, struggled. He scored 12 points in the 4-for-13 shooting, and registered a negative assist (three) to turnover (four) ratio. He also shot 0-for-3 in the restricted area and was blocked twice -- bringing his season totals to 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) and seven in those categories, respectively.
"I feel like we just tried to force stuff that really wasn’t there," White said. "We tried to make the right play, but against a good defensive team like them, sometimes the right play is always the hardest. I feel like they were in the passing lanes. We just gotta make smarter decisions with the ball."
White added that he "came out flat," but made no excuses, saying he simply needs to play better.
Domination inside and out
The Bucks dominated throughout the 2019-20 season in no small part thanks to their interior defense. In the regular season, they ceded just 24.2 restricted area attempts per game and 55.2 percent restricted area field goal shooting to opponents -- both tops in the NBA by a wide margin.
So the Bulls ran into a bit of a buzzsaw tonight and looked the part. The visitors lost the paint-point battle 42-26, and shot just 21-for-41 in the paint (15-for-22 in the restricted area). Milwaukee blocked six shots.
That coincided with a divergent 3-point shooting success. The Bucks rained hellfire all night long, finishing with 22 3s and 48.9 percent long-range shooting. 45 of their 85 total field goal attempts were 3s.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were 6-for-26 from deep. Nothing clicked offensively, from the distributing, to finishing, to shooting. The second-night-of-a-back-to-back legs were apparent. Top to bottom. Inside and out.
You get a debut! You get a debut!
Garbage time beginning early led to a few Bulls debuts. Devon Dotson, a lifelong Bulls fan, made his first regular-season appearance in the NBA. Luke Kornet logged his first minutes since preseason. Even Cristiano Felício got some run after Denzel Valentine took an elbow to the face and had to exit the game.
That's emblematic of how one-sided the affair was.
Garrett Temple, earning his keep
That came after Carter banked in an above-the-break 3-point attempt in the first quarter, without a Buck in the vicinity. The scout is out, and Carter’s initial hesitance is noteworthy. But Temple undoubtedly earned more ardent supporters in the Bulls fanbase for his coaxing.
Carter went on to quietly (because they lost by 30) post the Bulls’ only solid statline of the night with 12 points (5-for-7 from the field), five rebounds, four assists and a block in 25 minutes. His 1-for-2 outing from deep brought his regular-season-long 3-point percentage to 33.3 percent (3-for-9), which many would have gladly taken before the season started.
Back-to-back road wins over the Wizards were much-needed. The Bulls’ response to adversity in their New Year’s Eve victory was encouraging.
But the Bucks offered a telling litmus test for where this team really is. Don’t buy their now 3-3 record. They’re the class of the NBA, especially defensively, and effectively squashed the Bulls, who, notably, were down four players and on the back leg of their second back-to-back in seven days.
Though it marks a continuation of last season’s trend of falling flat against good teams, this is by no means a doomsday outcome given the expectations for this season. A tough stretch of schedule continues Jan. 3 against the Dallas Mavericks.