CHICAGO — After knocking down a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter, extending an already substantial Milwaukee Bucks lead in what was shaping up to be a dominant victory in Game 3 on Friday night, Bucks forward Bobby Portis stopped and shimmed, savoring the basket for a few extra moments.
As Portis walked off the court, he was met by Bucks guard Grayson Allen, and the two dapped up and embraced before heading toward the bench. Their combined effort — Allen led all scorers with 22-points and Portis added 18 after moving into the starting lineup — helped guide the Bucks to a 111-81 victory and play spoiler for a Chicago crowd that was about to head for the exits with the game already out of reach.
In Milwaukee’s first game without forward Khris Middleton, who will miss the rest of this first-round series with a sprained MCL, Allen and Portis stepped in to fill the void to lead Milwaukee to a 2-1 series advantage. Game 4 is Sunday afternoon in Chicago.
“It’s a big game for us, no excuses to be made,” Portis said after the game Friday. “One of our brothers went down and guys had to step up.”
The Bucks planned to lean on their experience to make it through this series in the absence of one of their best players. They closed out the Eastern Conference Finals last season without star Giannis Antetokounmpo. They used 31 different starting lineups to make it through this season and Friday’s super-sized starting lineup featuring Portis, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez in the front court with Wes Matthews and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt had only played two minutes together, during Game 1, during the entire season. So, the Bucks were ready to make up for Middleton’s absence on Friday.
“We’ve had guys that have been out at different times throughout the season and we’ve had other guys that have had to step up,” Bucks guard Pat Connaugton said at shootaround Friday morning. “This is no different.” In addition to his new role in the starting lineup, Portis was also forced to don a new look for Game 3. He wore protective goggles to play the game, his right eye still red from the aftermath of taking an elbow to the face from Bulls center Tristian Thompson during the first quarter of Game 2.
“I couldn’t see at all,” Portis said about Game 2. “When it happened, I just fell down because I got dizzy and I couldn’t see. I just blacked out.”
Portis acknowledged that his eye was still in some pain, but he played through it, knocking down 7 of 14 shots from the field (4 of 8 from 3) for 18 points in 25 minutes.
“He stepped up and he made big plays,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine said. “He did his job and I think we have to adjust if that’s how they’re going to go moving forward.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer went with Portis instead of moving Allen into the starting lineup like he had earlier in the season. But no Bucks player has his production fluctuate so drastically whether Middleton plays.
With Middleton in the lineup during the regular season, Allen averaged 9.6 points in 53 games compared to 17.2 points in the 13 games without him.
And although Allen hadn’t made a 3-pointer during the first two games of the series, he went 5 of 7 on Friday, setting a new playoff career-high with 22 points.
“Mentally my mindset was the same,” Allen said. “Maybe I was a little bit quicker to shoot some of those catch and shoot shots I got, but I think it was just being in different spots. Some of those spots Khris is usually in on offense, I was there and I got the ball.”
“The great thing is, even after I hadn’t hit a three in the series yet, Pat had missed a couple, and Giannis and Jrue were still throwing it to us. They still trust in us after that and it gives us that confidence. We know it’ll eventually go-in.”
While Allen and Portis helped contribute offensively, Holiday and Matthews continued to pester the Bulls best scorers in LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan could not replicate anything near his 41-point performance in Game 2, limited to only nine shot attempts on Friday, the fewest he has put up in any game this season.
“I wasn’t frustrated at all, I knew they were going to make adjustments,” said DeRozan, who finished 4-of-9 shooting with 11 points. “I got a feel for it throughout the game, but by the time I got a feel for it, they had it rolling offensively. You’ve got to give them credit, now it’s on us to make our adjustments on how we’re going to counter that.”
The Bulls were hosting their first playoff game since 2017 and fans packed into a sold-out United Center brimming with anticipation before tip-off.
However, they never had much to cheer about. Milwaukee bulldozed Chicago’s playoff homecoming, handing the Bulls their worst home playoff loss in franchise history, surpassing a 26-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1992. “They came out and whooped our butt,” DeRozan said. “Now it’s on us. How are we going to respond?”