The Chicago Bulls have been full of surprises this season, and the team’s first playoff game was no exception.
In a rare turn of events, this unit built around three offensively gifted talents was stuck relying on a newfound defensive intensity to keep themselves alive. The team shot a dismal 32.3 percent from the field and 18.9 percent from behind the arc. If we include the regular season, it made for comfortably their worst shooting night across the board. And, again, the only reason this poor shooting didn’t lead to a blowout loss was thanks to a physical defensive effort that held an explosive Bucks squad to just 40.5 percent from the field and a 10-38 performance behind the arc (which, to the Bulls’ credit, is a positive takeaway).
Still, the lack of efficient offense proved to be the team’s downfall, as the Bulls failed to capitalize on several pivotal 4th quarter possessions. One of the NBA’s best 4th quarter threats in DeMar DeRozan shot just 1-6 from the field in the final frame, while Zach LaVine finished an even worse 0-6 with a questionable 31-footer with 30 seconds left. Nikola Vucevic – despite being the team’s leading scorer and having an overall solid outing – also botched two layups in the final minute that would have cut Milwaukee’s lead to just one.
“They made a couple more winning plays than we did at the end,” LaVine told reporters after the 93-86 loss. “I think we had opportunities to make those, we were in the right position, but it’s tough.”
When the final buzzer sounded, the Bulls’ “Big 3” walked off a combined 21-71 from the field. DeRozan was the coldest culprit with a 6-25 performance that led to just 18 total points. He also got to the free-throw line for just six attempts. For a player that averaged 31 points on the Bucks this regular season with a 30-31 performance from the free-throw line, it made for quite the discouraging start to the postseason.
“I don’t know what the hell is going on – probably a week off,” DeRozan said. “It just wasn’t me. All of us. We just got to get that feel. It’s fine. Every shot I took felt good. I guarantee it: Me, Zach, or Vooch will not miss that many shots again. We just got to keep what we did defensively up and try to take that to another level.”
Merely because I can’t imagine it getting much worse, I do believe DeRozan when he says the Bulls trio will not miss that many shots in the games to come. However, for DeRozan specifically, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the midrange king struggle once the playoffs begin.
While most of DeRozan’s postseason appearances came two teams ago with Toronto, he built up a frustrating reputation during his time there. The Raptors’ high-volume scorer shot just 41.0 percent in his 51 playoff games with the franchise. He especially struggled in his final two postseason games with the organization against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, scoring only 21 combined points on 8-23 shooting.
None of that is to say DeRozan hasn’t grown past those days. His one playoff series with the Spurs provided a much stronger effort, as he shot 48.7 percent from the field and averaged 22.0 points per game. So while I don’t think the DeRozan we saw last night is here to stay, the context does tell us nights like that aren’t particularly unique.
To be clear, the Bucks do deserve credit for their defense on the Bulls’ top scorers. We know their scheme is built to stuff the paint and wall off the rim. For a Chicago Bulls squad that does like to work downhill, this poses quite the problem. But, nevertheless, that’s no excuse for the team’s stars shooting as poorly as they did. The Bulls still found themselves with several open looks behind the arc and in midrange spots where they are normally very efficient. Many of the shots were downright makeable shots, and LaVine knew it: “I think we took good shots. I think if we get those shots again, we’ll make a lot more of them.”
One thing I think this group can do better to get in a quicker rhythm in Game 2 is use Vucevic as a primary playmaker, and Donovan suggested as much after the game. The more they can get him the ball at the elbow or in the post, the more off-ball movement can be encouraged and the more catch-and-shoot opportunities we could see open up. Guys like Zach LaVine, Alex Caruso, and Javonte Green are especially strong cutters, and we know Vucevic has the ability to find those guys on quick feeds.
I know we’re talking about the “Big 3” here, but the last thing I want to add is that Alex Caruso simply has to hit his open shots, too. Head coach Billy Donovan opted to put him in the starting lineup, and there has to be a level of shotmaking that comes with that. He went just 1-5 from downtown last night, missing two wide-open looks from the corner and one above the break. We have to remember this is a Bucks team that allows opponents to shoot the most 3-point attempts per game, and the Bulls need players like Caruso to convert those looks to pull off a win.
Anyway, all we can do now is hope last night’s shooting performance proved to be an anomaly. I know for a fact the Bucks aren’t going to stink it up that bad again, and it will be up for the Bulls to prove the same.