Can the Bulls Keep Up Their Surprising Defensive Effort From Game 1?

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Can the Bulls Keep Up Their Surprising Defensive Effort From Game 1?

Chicago Bulls

For those who didn’t watch a single Chicago Bulls game after the ball dropped on December 31st, they probably thought Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2022 playoffs was nothing new.

After all, the Bulls held a top-10 defensive rating in the NBA and forced opponents into roughly 15 turnovers per game in 2021. The backcourt of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso looked like arguably the peskiest defensive duo in the league, and the team’s All-Stars were able to feed off that intensity, ensuring they were at the right place at the right time to handle their own assignments.

However, the rest of 2022 would tell a completely different story.

This season, Chicago held the NBA’s 4th-worst defensive rating over the last three-plus months of the regular season, allowing opponents to score the 4th-most points in the paint and forcing just the 2nd-fewest turnovers a night, per NBA Stats. The team’s rapidly decreasing execution on that end of the floor led to a plummet down the standings into the East’s 6th seed, which ultimately meant drawing arguably the worst first-round matchup imaginable: The reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Much like what we saw in the final two meetings between these teams in the regular season, the expectation was for Giannis Antetokounmmpo and Co. to blow the doors off the Bulls. Fanduel Illinois Sportsbook had the Bulls as a +10.5 underdog, underlining a belief the same old lackluster defense would waltz into the playoffs. To be clear, there is still plenty of time for that to happen, but it sure didn’t happen in Game 1.

While the Bulls had easily one of their worst offensive showing of the year on Sunday night, they counterbalanced it with one of their best defensive performances since the early portion of this season.

Milwaukee shot just 40.7 percent from the field and 26.3 percent from downtown. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton combined for a 10-29 performance, with Middleton scoring only 11 total points. Now, can part of this be chalked up to a cold shooting night from the field? Absolutely. We should not expect this duo to shoot this inefficiently moving forward, but the Bulls still deserve a tip of the cap for an effort that held Milwaukee to its fewest points scored since late December.

Not only did the Bulls play one of the more physical games on this end of the floor, but they played surprisingly connected. The group’s help-defense was aggressive and purposeful. And the rotating was crisp on a number of crucial possessions. After allowing Antetokounmpo and Middleton to swerve around the defense to the cup, the team also did a solid job course-correcting and funneling ball-handlers toward the middle of the paint. The group effort held Milwaukee to just 42 points inside, which tied the series-low that was set in a similarly gritty matchup back in January.

No, they didn’t find some new crafty way to stop Antetokounmpo. And, yes, they did get lucky with the Bucks missing a handful of open 3-pointers. However, it slightly resembled the very strategy we see from the Bucks. The Bulls were prepared to live with some of those open 3s from Milwaukee as long as it meant not letting the stars dominate them down low.

More importantly, though, was the team’s ability to show bodies and stay vertical. Not only were the Bulls able to get into the space of Middleton and Holiday on some possessions, but they were able to force the two into a combined 11 turnovers. As a whole, the Bucks finished with 21 cough ups, which is their second-most of the season.

I shared some clips in the tweet below if you want to see how the Bulls did it. As I said, a lot of it was merely showing bodies and forcing the Bucks to make the right play/feed.

And while the Bulls’ more physical play did send Milwaukee to the free-throw line for 23 attempts, that was less than in three of their four regular-season matchups. Not to mention, the Bucks shot just 65.2 percent from the charity stripe!

The funny thing is that as satisfied as I am with this defensive performance, there is no question the Bulls need to be even better, and Billy Donovan knows it:

The Bucks aren’t going to shoot that poorly again (which is a big reason it sucks the Bulls didn’t steal that game), and Antetokounmpo is only going to dominate more when he doesn’t have to play just 34 minutes due to foul trouble. With that in mind, the Bulls have to be prepared to pull the strings even tighter.

Closeouts on the inevitably open 3-point shooters need to be better. Likewise, as hard as it is, the Bulls can’t get lost Giannis-watching. The double team needs to be sent at the right time, perhaps even later on in the possession to force Milwaukee into quicker decision-making. All of this is why I can envision even more minutes coming for guys like Derrick Jones Jr. and Javonte Green. Both are extremely athletic and switchable defenders who have shown they can fly around the defensive end. The Bucks may be able to attack them with their size advantage at times, but it could very well be a risk Donovan is willing to take.

Anyway, I’ll be extremely curious to see what kind of defensive showing we get in Game 2. I don’t expect too many adjustments considering the team found some success, but I do know anything less than what we saw on Sunday likely isn’t going to cut it. The Bulls have to keep this up.

Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.