Five boxes that the Bulls would have to check to upset the Bucks

It was Tristan Thompson’s “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” moment.

The veteran big man was doing his best to try and motivate his teammates going into this weekend’s Round 1 playoff showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks, and was again preaching his own championship history.

“In 2015 we played the Atlanta Hawks, who had won 60-some games, and they beat up on us all year earlier in the season … beat our ass every game, and they weren’t close games either,” Thompson said, with an excited pitch in his voice.

Actually, Thompson’s Cavaliers team beat that Hawks squad by 33 points in the first game of that 2014-15 season, but forget it, Thompson was rolling.

“And then we get to the playoffs and beat them 4-0,” Thompson continued. “We got the whole week to study for this final exam, no matter how the previous tests went. That’s why it doesn’t really matter what a good team does to you in the regular season.”

A good point, but not an accurate one. It wasn’t just what Milwaukee did to the Bulls this season, sweeping them in all four meetings. It was what every elite team did to the Bulls this season. Of the eight teams with a winning percentage of .600 or better, the Bulls were an embarrassing 2-21, only beating Boston and Dallas, and that came way back before Nov. 10.

Does this Bulls roster have a path to upset the Bucks in this series? Buried in a bunch of trees and brush, yeah, a very, very slight one. But they would need to have all five of these keys go their way.

1. Build the wall – Miami has had the blueprint for a few seasons in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that was on display yet again this year. The “Greek Freak” shot 55.3% from the field for the 2021-22 campaign, but just 38.6% against the Heat in three games.

Yes, Miami has an elite defender in Bam Adebayo to throw on Antetokounmpo, but they also play him with physicality, and more importantly when he’s attacking in the paint, build a wall for him to try and plow through.

The Bulls don’t have a Bam or a Jimmy Butler, but Patrick Williams is an unproven physical specimen, while Alex Caruso has no fear of putting his nose in the mix. It won’t replicate the Heat wall, but it better at least be a fence. Make Antetokounmpo be a mid-range jump-shooter and live with the results.

2. No ice – The Bulls offense is at its best when the ball is moving and the assists are stacking up. The isolation ball played way too much the last six weeks has to stop. It’s not what this Bulls team is good at, and it feeds right into what the Bucks want defensively.

3. Three ball – The Bulls have been awful defending the three-pointer, especially since the All-Star Break. Milwaukee finished fifth in the NBA with 38.4 three-point attempts per game and percentage (36.6%). The communication in rotating has to be stellar for the Bulls if they want to survive the long-range onslaught.

That means not only Caruso, but Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.

4. Bench mobbed – The Bulls bench is young and has very little playoff experience. Meanwhile, Bobby Portis, George Hill, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Serge Ibaka are all capable of turning a small Bucks lead into a large one.

Bulls guards Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu will be tested like they haven’t been tested this season.

5. No whine with that cheese – Playoff basketball is physical. Baskets are tougher to come by. LaVine, and even DeRozan at times, whine way too much when they don’t get perceived calls, and far too often carry that to the defensive end. That has to stop. Begging for calls in the playoffs is a quick way to an early summer vacation.

NOTE: Lead assistant Chris Fleming and assistant Damian Cotter will miss Game 1 in Milwaukee, after testing positive for the coronavirus and going into the league’s health and safety protocol.

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