The defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks continue to produce in the postseason even without key performers.
The Chicago Bulls simply don’t have that kind of depth or playoff savvy.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 33 points and nine rebounds and the Bucks routed the Bulls 116-100 on Wednesday night to finish off their first-round series in five games.
The Bucks won the last three games by an average of 23.3 points despite playing without Khris Middleton, the All-Star who sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during the fourth quarter of Game 2.
The third-seeded Bucks advanced to face second-seeded Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals, with Game 1 on Sunday in Boston. The Celtics swept Brooklyn.
“After Game 2, we kind of talked about how we know what the deal was,” Antetokounmpo said. “The team knew what the deal was. We knew what we had to do. We had to be desperate. We had to go out there and compete at a high level, pay attention to detail as much as possible, help one another defensively. We’ve got to do it as a team.”
The Bucks have been through this before. They won their first title since 1971 last season despite losing Antetokounmpo for the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals due to a hyperextended knee
“We’ve been talking about the depth of the roster, the quality of the roster a lot this season,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Other guys have gotten opportunities and played well. Our defense has tightened up, and we’ve leaned hard on that these three games. We’ve got depth. We’ve got a good group.”
Antetokounpmo appeared to get his left wrist treated during the first half, but it clearly didn’t limit his effectiveness. Antetokounmpo said afterward he felt “great,” and Budenholzer added that “we think he’s fine.”
While the Bucks thrived without Middleton, Chicago didn’t handle the loss of key players quite as well.
The Bulls played without the starting backcourt they used for the first four games because two-time All-Star Zach LaVine was in health and safety protocols and Alex Caruso was in concussion protocol. Without them on the floor, the Bulls fell behind by as many as 29 points in the first half.
“This was a lot of our guys’ first rodeo, just understanding what it’s like to compete in a playoff series,” Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan said. “There’s so much you can learn from that experience, especially going against the defending champs.”
Milwaukee focused on containing DeRozan, who had scored 41 points in the Bulls’ Game 2 victory. DeRozan was held to 11 points Wednesday while shooting 5 of 10, though he also had seven assists.
“That was the game plan — make him see a lot of bodies and force everybody else to beat us,” Bucks guard Wesley Matthews said.
Antetokounmpo was 1 of 15 from the floor and 11 of 14 from the free-throw line. Pat Connaughton went 6 of 9 on 3-point attempts and scored 20 points. Bobby Portis added 14 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.
Patrick Williams scored 23 points, Nikola Vucevic 19 and Coby White 17 for the Bulls. Vucevic also had 16 rebounds and six assists.
DeRozan was scoreless in the first 26 minutes of the game and attempted just one shot in the first quarter as he tried to get his teammates involved.
The problem was Chicago’s other players weren’t hitting open shots, allowing the Bucks to take command early.
“It was pretty obvious they were going to load up on DeMar,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought he played a great game. I thought he generated good shots. He didn’t have a high assist total because we really didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but he would have had an enormous amount of assists if we had shot the ball better.”
Milwaukee pulled ahead for good 3 1/2 minutes into the game and built a double-digit lead by scoring 12 straight points in the first quarter. Late in the first period, the Bucks began a 23-2 run that helped them extend the advantage to 49-20 with 7:25 left in the second period.
Chicago outscored the Bucks 22-11 the rest of the second quarter and got the margin down to 11 on Ayo Dosunmu’s 3-point play with 9:32 left in the third quarter, but that’s as close as the Bulls would get.
Bulls: The Bulls attempted 52 shots from 3-point range and only 40 from inside the arc. Chicago made just 28.8% of its 3-point shots. ... The Bulls haven’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2015, when they beat the Bucks before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East semifinals. … With LaVine and Caruso unavailable, Javonte Green and Dosunmu made their first career playoff starts.
Bucks: Reserve guard George Hill still hasn’t played in this postseason due to an abdominal strain. Hill had been listed as questionable the injury report Wednesday before getting ruled out, an indication he’s getting closer to a return. Budenholzer said before the game that Hill is “making progress” but added that “he needs more time.” ... The Bucks have won 20 of their last 22 meetings with the Bulls. ... Jrue Holiday had 10 points and nine assists but also committed six turnovers. (AP)
(Photo credits to: Brew Hoops)