The NBA Regular Season has come to a close. The Chicago Bulls finished with a 46-36 record, 6th best in the Eastern Conference. They avoided the play-in tournament and secured a playoff series against the defending NBA Champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.
It was a special regular season for the Bulls. The tremendous start, that had fans envisioning championship glory, devolved into a grimy slog through the toughest competition in the league. But 46 wins ain’t nothing to sneeze at. That’s a 15 win difference from last seasons shortened format (31-41), and 24 more wins than the bubble season (22-43). The improvements the front office made to the roster over the offseason have paid huge dividends.
But enough with the regular season, the Bulls are about to start the REAL NBA season, they are about to play their first playoff game in 5 years.
There’s an old maxim that has always resonated with me: If you want to be the best you have to beat the best. The Bulls will have to beat the reigning NBA Champions in order to advance in the playoffs. It is a tall order. The Bulls were 0-4 against the Bucks in the regular season. They haven’t beaten Giannis Antetokounmpo in something like the last 13 games he’s played them. The Bulls have only beaten the Bucks once in the past 5 seasons. It’s going to take a Herculean effort for the Bulls to get past Milwaukee.
Most experts have Milwaukee either sweeping Chicago, or getting the gentleman’s sweep in 5 games. I’m struggling to go against the experts on this one. The differences between the two teams is stark. Milwaukee has more playoff experience, they have a better defense, a better offense, and the best player in the series. On paper, the Bulls playoff run ought to be short and bittersweet, but is there a way the Bulls could steal the series?
Yes, there is.
Winning an NBA Championship is an exhausting thing to do. There is a very slim chance that Milwaukee is tired and not playing at their peak level. A very slim chance.
The Bulls could go back to playing the kind of defense they played at the start of the regular season. It will be hard to do without Lonzo Ball (done for the season with a leg injury), but we’ve seen good things from guys like Javonte Green, Ayo Donsunmu, Derrick Jones Jr. and Patrick Williams. The defensive anchor is Alex Caruso, if he takes advantage of this week off before the playoffs begin, and gets healthy, the Bulls defense might be able to compete against Giannis, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton.
DeMar DeRozan has had a very special season on the offensive end of the court. Early on, he was unstoppable, getting to his spots, elevating over the defense, and either nailing mid-range jumpers or getting the defense to foul and send him to the line for free-throws. He slowed down as the season dragged on and teams started double- and triple-teaming him. He wasn’t getting as much elevation in his jumps, the fouls weren’t be called as consistently, his production dipped. With a week off and the energy of the playoffs, maybe DeMar gets back to that special level of offense we saw from him earlier in the season.
Zach LaVine has been tormented by pain in his knee for the last few months. He hasn’t been the same player since the pain started flaring up, but we know what he is capable of on offense. It is possible that playoff Zach LaVine will be a beast. We saw flashes of playoff intensity from Zach during the Summer Olympics, as he helped Team USA bring home the gold. We’ll need that from him if we even hope to win a single game from the defending champs.
Nikola Vucevic has had good playoff performances in his career, he’ll need to be the best version of himself he can be in this series. Vucevic had a rough season, he was playing too fast, putting up shots quicker than he needed to. He was out of rhythm and out of sync, but he did step up in key moments all season long, hitting shots when the Bulls needed them the most. If Vucevic can harness that big moment energy and ride it throughout the playoffs, the Bulls have a chance.
The real X-Factor for the Bulls in this series will come from their youngest players. We don’t know what we’re going to get from Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White, and Patrick Williams. Will they rise to the challenge? Much like Vucevic, we’ve seen Ayo and White making big plays when the game is on the line. We just saw Patrick Williams dominate a game and lead the Bulls to victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves at the end of the regular season.
If the Bulls get intensity and production from the young players, it could be enough to tip the scales against the Bucks.
This has been the best Bulls regular season in a very long time. There is a lot of room for hope and optimism going into this post-season. All the experts agree that the Bulls have zero shot at beating the Milwaukee Bucks in this, their first playoff series in 5 seasons. But those same experts scoffed at the Bulls offseason, and barely any of them thought the Bulls would make the play-in tournament, let along secure a playoff berth. The Bulls are a supremely talented squad, and if Milwaukee is looking past them, or if they are battling fatigue, an upset could happen. Until it does, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!