Rudy, Rocky, Hickory High, step aside. Here comes another one perhaps underestimated, the Bulls.
The Boston Celtics lead the Eastern Conference with nine consecutive wins. Nah, no big deal. Didn’t even try that hard to get them by 14 at home on Monday. The Milwaukee Bucks, second-best record in the NBA, 9-1 at home and looking to return to the NBA Finals. OK, maybe a little bit more difficult it being in Milwaukee.
But down the stretch when it mattered the most it was the Bulls 118-113, making the big shots and forcing the Bucks into the big turnovers.
No Jack or beanstalk, but there was the enchanting DeMar DeRozan with 36 points and helping cut off the Bucks’ head, Giannis Antetokounmpo, drawing offensive fouls along with Alex Caruso; no David, but there was Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević each with 18 points and Coby White off the bench with 14 and the game breaking sling shot threes in the last minute of the game to brew the Bucks’ goliaths.
Suddenly these Bulls are giant killers, and at 8-10 and the way they are knocking some done to size the rest of this six-game road trip doesn’t look quite as prodigious starting in Oklahoma City Friday.
“The confidence I have in this group of guys, once we figure it out we’d get it clicking,” said DeRozan, whose 18 third quarter points gave the Bulls the ability to help hold off several late Milwaukee runs. “Being locked in and having the confidence to compete, these are the results we can get. These last two games, it’s the top teams in the NBA; showed that we can do it.
“Losing the games we lost, we’ve been holding each other accountable,” DeRozan revealed. “Everybody’s been speaking up whenever we get a chance, film sessions, practice; we’ve been on each other. We’ve been picking it up and showing how badly we want it instead of just talking about it; that’s a testament to guys wanting to go out there and compete. Coach challenged me, Zach and Vooch a couple of games ago. We’ve got to live up to that, keep this group going. It’s a challenge we all accept.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go through whatever you’ve got to go through to understand,” said DeRozan. “I think that’s just where we are at. We’ve had some down moments, losing four games in a row, dropping games we thought we should have won, close games, getting our butts whooped at home. Kind of went through so many emotions already 20 games into the season. Sometimes that’s beneficial. You’ve got to soak in that hurt and kind of generate that to being competitors, and that’s where I think we are now.”
Although still below .500, it’s looking like it’s a pretty good place taking out the hottest teams in the NBA and winning in Milwaukee.
The Bulls did it by not only out hustling the Bucks, which the Bulls can do with their reserve corps, getting nine steals and forcing 20 turnovers. But they did it how they rarely do, outshooting one of the best three-point shooting teams. The Bulls made a season high 18 threes in 42 attempts while the Bucks were 12 of 38.
It’s often the way the modern NBA game is decided, who makes the most threes.
It’s usually not the Bulls without the common catch-and-shoot three-point threats so many teams have. The Bulls often have to do it with pull up threes from LaVine and pull up twos from DeRozan. And pull a rabbit out of their defense.
The got a bunch of that, but also Javonte Green flew off the bench with a pair of threes. And then White was as electric as he was eclectic with four threes, including the back-to-back winning pair down the stretch when it looked like the Bucks were going to steal away the Bulls’ best defensive game of the season.
“I’ve got the utmost confidence in Coby every time he shoots the ball,” said DeRozan. “I tell him all the time if he misses one, two, three, keep shooting because he has that ability to get hot in any moment of the game. The one he hit in the corner (to go ahead 112-109 with 46.1 seconds left). I knew if his man collapsed I was going to find him and he was going to knock it down; that’s what he does.
“He (Coby) changed the game,” DeRozan added. “Coby gets hot any given game he can make six to eight threes. He changes the way defenses guard us when he’s out there. The dynamic he brings makes us that more difficult to guard. There are going to be plenty more moments for him to shine and show what he can do; that’s who he is, big games, big moments. You need someone like that for sure.”
If the Bulls have him, then who knows where this can go.
It wasn’t as certain as Monday against the Celtics, and the Bucks kept coming after the Bulls took a 94-84 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls helping, rotating and throwing various combinations frustrated Antetokounmpo to eight points in the first half in a 62-61 Bucks lead after the Bucks were out fast 16-7. And Donovan was calling in less than two minutes.
But DeRozan and LaVine each had 13 first half points as the teams traded blows, Patrick Williams with blocks on Giannis, LaVine making four of his first five shots and pushing the ball on offense often as a de facto point guard, Donovan with a technical foul , LaVine losing a score when he was ruled for kicking out his foot on a shot, Caruso and DeRozan actually taking turns defending Antetokounmpo in the Bulls tag team. Still the Bucks were ahead 50-38 midway through the second quarter when DeRozan kicked his offense into high gear, and then made a point to make some points to start the second half.
“Third quarter just came out aggressive,” said DeRozan. “We’ve had too many games this year, third quarter we just let games slip away, made it more difficult for us. So I just tried to take it upon myself to bring energy and be aggressive and try to make that contagious.”
Highlighted by a late 12-2 spurt in the quarter, the Bulls led 90-83 going into the fourth.
The godly Greek of the Bucks started ramming his way to the rim on the way to 17 fourth quarter points among his 36 to match DeRozan. Antetokounmpo also had 11 rebounds and seven assists while DeRozan had eight assists. But the difference was eight turnovers from Antetokounmpo and seven for Jrue Holiday, the latter the top defender who also was unable to contain DeRozan.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” marveled Donovan about DeRozan. “He is so good. You see the shotmaking ability. For me, there are a lot of things that go into it that are so impressive, like the competitive drive to want to win and be great. And the only thing that matters to him is winning. Also his detail, the way he works out and studies the game and puts the work in and his IQ and calmness and demeanor in those moments. He really is a special player on a lot of different levels. He’s very unique in a special way because he has so many incredible qualities that make him the kind of player he is.”
Still, the Bulls were scrambling against the Bucks big guys who were winning the boards 48-35 and 18-7 on second chance points. Early in the fourth quarter, the Bucks hit the Bulls with a 13-1 run to get back into the game and take a lead, the Bulls getting burned with their smaller lineups.
But then when it became a late shooting contest, it was the Bulls who were the surprising marksmen.
Vučević made back to back threes midway through the fourth quarter when the Bucks twice took one-point leads. And then after the Bucks went ahead 109-106 with 1:35 left on Giannis, of all things, making a jump shot, it was the Bulls, and especially White, who bucked a familiar trend.
These Bucks aren’t turkeys, but the Bulls knew how to take aim. And if not exactly knocking the stuffing out of them, then mashing them up a bit so the win was more than just gravy. I know, but it is now a journalism rule that you have to make a few stupid Thanksgiving references if a team plays within 12 hours of the holiday.
So be thankful to get back to the end of the game.
And boomshakalaka, Coby with the three to tie the game with 1:15 left, Giannis forced into another charging call by those pesky Bulls, Coby again with the three for the lead with 46.1 seconds left, Holiday with the pass out of bounds from out of bounds after a timeout—that? they came up with that?—and in the crowd they’re not booing, they’re saying Voooooooooch with the closer for a six-point Bulls lead with 20.6 seconds left. No Magic this time.
“(This win) means a lot,” said LaVine. “Back to back really good wins, number one in the East. Shows we can play against anybody and we can beat anybody. We have to have the same mindset each and every game. Hopefully, we can start stacking them up. I think we responded the right way and maybe that’s the jump start. Especially going on this road trip, us on the road, us versus everybody. Sometimes that’s all you need.”
Because giants can be cut down to size if you give it a shot.
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