Patrick Williams says the Chicago Bulls ‘can play with any team,’ including the Milwaukee Bucks. The season series says otherwise. – Boston Herald
The Chicago Bulls return to the postseason Sunday for the first time in five years, but at this point even the most optimistic fans have written them off.
They head into Game 1 in Milwaukee having lost 15 of their last 22 games, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Bucks are healthy and ready to roll.
A four-game sweep seems quite possible, and one oddsmaker listing the title favorites had the Bulls ahead of only the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans, Charlotte Hornets and San Antonio Spurs — all of whom are in the play-in tournament.
So the pressure is off coach Billy Donovan and his team. A season that started out so well is expected to end with a resounding thud, and then it’s on to Zach LaVine’s contract, the draft and other matters of importance.
But forward Patrick Williams doesn’t see it that way.
“We can play with any team,” Williams said Sunday after the bench mob ended the regular season with a win in Minnesota.
That’s not what their 1-14 record against the top four Eastern Conference seeds — the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers — suggests. But please elaborate, Patrick.
“I don’t think that we see ourselves as underdogs,” Williams continued. “But I think this team definitely can use that as fuel. We did early in the season when guys were saying that this team wouldn’t be as good. I think that’s something we definitely can use as fuel.
“I don’t think we’ll need it. I think we’re all ready for this opportunity. And we’re all ready for this series.”
The Bulls didn’t look ready to play in their two most recent games against the Bucks — losing by a combined 49 points — and they went 0-4 against the defending champs in the season series, continuing their pattern against the NBA’s elite teams.
The cavalry was supposed to arrive in March to save the season, which was why executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas stood pat at the trade deadline and instead signed Tristan Thompson, a big man with postseason experience who could spell Nikola Vučević in the middle.
But the returns of Williams and Alex Caruso didn’t help much, Thompson wasn’t as effective as advertised and Lonzo Ball lingered on the injured list with his knee injury until being ruled out for the season last week. DeMar DeRozan, who carried this team on his back all season, couldn’t do it alone, and without a true point guard, the Bulls were just another middle-of-the-pack team down the stretch.
Since Jan. 14, when Ball went down in a 138-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Bulls went 19-24 to lose their mojo. They were 18th in scoring average (111.7 points per game) and 23rd in 3-point shooting (34.9%) after Ball’s injury.
All eyes will now be on DeRozan and LaVine as they try to pull off a mini miracle. DeRozan is playoff-tested, while LaVine will be making his postseason debut.
The Bucks rested their regulars Sunday in the regular-season finale instead of going all out to try to nab the No. 2 seed in the East. They lost badly to the Cavaliers and wound up with the No. 3 seed — avoiding a potential first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, who meet the Cavs on Tuesday in a play-in game.
It wasn’t exactly tanking, but would anyone in his right mind rather risk playing a series against Kevin Durant and the Nets than face the free-falling Bulls?
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer is no dummy, and he knows they have the Bulls’ number. The last time the Bulls beat the Bucks with both Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in the lineup was Dec. 26, 2017. Only one Bulls player from that night, Bobby Portis, will be on the floor in this series — and he now plays for the Bucks.
LaVine knows what’s at stake. He called the Bulls’ blowout loss to the Hornets on Friday “embarrassing” and said fans were right to boo the team. But he’s confident they can hang with the Bucks if everyone does his job.
“They have a really good team and a complete team,” LaVine said after Sunday’s game. “I think we do as well. We just have to attack them and figure out ways to beat them.”
Antetokounmpo isn’t likely to win another MVP award this year, though his numbers show he’s in the same area code as the two front-runners, the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić and the 76ers’ Joel Embiid. The “Greek Freak” averaged 26.8 points and 13.5 rebounds in 32 minutes in the Bucks’ four meetings with the Bulls. Vučević averaged 16.8 points and 8.3 rebounds against the Bucks, but with Williams back, he shouldn’t have to focus on defending Antetokounmpo.
Lack of size has been an obstacle for the Bulls all season, but they got by with smaller, quicker lineups when Ball was healthy. The Bulls finished 28th in rebounding (42.3 per game), while the Bucks were second (46.7). Having Brook Lopez back creates an even greater size disparity, so Donovan might have to pair Vučević and Thompson together, which doesn’t bode well for a team that’s better when the offense is in a flow instead of bogged down by two bigs.
Donovan said the Bucks are “arguably the best team in the league.” Lopez’s return gives them one more weapon.
“Knowing personnel is really critical,” he said. “Lopez was out there with his back (injury), and now he’s back and has played well. They’ve have had an opportunity to play smaller with Portis at the five and also playing big with Giannis and Lopez together.
“They also can use (Serge) Ibaka. He didn’t play last game against us, so where does he fit in there? Those are all the things you kind of study and just be as detailed as you can.”
Left unsaid is the presence of Bucks guard Grayson Allen, whose hard foul on Caruso on Jan. 21 at Fiserv Forum sent the Bulls’ best defensive player to the injured list with a fractured right wrist and made the former Duke star Public Enemy No. 1 at the United Center.
Allen’s flagrant foul didn’t start the Bulls’ downfall, but along with Ball’s injury, it tested their depth and forced them to play at a higher level every night just to have a chance. Obviously that didn’t happen often, and the Bulls dropped all the way from first place to the No. 6 seed.
The Bulls lost 94-90 on that bitter cold night in Milwaukee with a strong overall effort that fell short. On March 4 at the United Center, they were outscored 37-24 in the fourth quarter of a 118-112 loss, and the Bucks won the final two games by 28 and 21 points.
“They’ve been a championship-caliber team for a couple years now,” LaVine said. “They’re experienced. We have to come in and try to shake it up a little bit. We have to try to bring the fight to them because if we’re back on our heels, it’s not going to be good.”
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