Previewing Chicago Bulls potential playoff matchups: Milwaukee Bucks

Today is the conclusion of our potential Bulls’ first round playoff match-up previews. We’ve looked at Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia. Now, it’s time for the defending champs:

Whether it’s been the Heat holding the top spot in the conference, the 76ers trading for James Harden, Boston surging over the last couple months, or Brooklyn looming with Kyrie Irving now eligible for home games, multiple story lines in the East have allowed the Bucks to fly under the radar. It’s almost as if people have forgotten a certain back-to-back league MVP, the same one who put his stamp on last year’s Finals with a historic 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block, series-sealing performance in game 6.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has again placed himself in the running for MVP, remaining in the conversation with Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, and could very well win his first scoring title. The Greek Freak is averaging 30.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, while maintaining the same effort, versatility, and rim protection that earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020, a trophy he might take home again this year.

Khris Middleton made his third All-Star game, despite dips in field goal and 3-point percentages from the last couple seasons. He’s trending in the right direction since the All-Star break, shooting a blistering 44.4% on 7.1 attempts per game from beyond the arc. Jrue Holiday is playing about as well as he ever has, with some wondering if he had earned the trip to Cleveland over Middleton. Holiday is shooting a career-high 41.1% on 3FG and his net rating of 7.9 trails only Antetokounmpo and George Hill for the team lead.

Milwaukee has defeated Chicago in all three of their match-ups so far this season, with a fourth and final contest coming on Tuesday.

The Bulls laid an egg in the most recent meeting on March 22, getting rolled 126-98 in Milwaukee. Chicago, who was on the second half of a back-to-back, shot just 42.9% from the field, with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan combing to go 16-39. Antetokounmpo was a game-high +28 in only 30 minutes of work, tallying 25 points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks.

As a team, Milwaukee’s net rating of 3.5 ranks 7th in the league and although their defense has slipped slightly from last year, some of that is likely due to Brook Lopez’s absence. Milwaukee’s starting center played opening night before missing most of the season with a back injury. The Bucks are 6-2 since Lopez returned on March 14, and will be hoping he can return to form as one of the best rim protectors in the league. Last season, opponents shot just 50.7% against Lopez on attempts within five feet of the rim, one of the best marks in the league.

Lopez’s presence allows the Bucks great flexibility, as Antetokounmpo can spend more time wreaking havoc on the perimeter, rather than being relied upon to protect the paint. Milwaukee’s defensive rating of 111.1 ranks 14th in the league, but it feels safe to bet that the Bucks will be better on that end when the playoffs begin; Milwaukee’s defensive rating of 106.8 in last year’s postseason was the best mark of any playoff participant. Holiday has remains one of the elite perimeter defenders in the league and would likely be tasked with making LaVine’s life as tough as possible in a postseason series.

On the other end, the Bucks have the 5th best offensive rating in the league at 114.0, due in large part to their proficiency from behind the arc. Milwaukee ranks 5th in both 3-point field goal percentage (36.7%) and attempts per game (38.6), with Middleton, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen, and Holiday all shooting above 37%.

The Bucks continue to surround Antetokounmpo with shooters and let him go to work; only two players in the league, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic, have higher usage rates than Giannis. Milwaukee keeps constant pressure on defenses, playing at one of the fastest paces in the league while using Antetokounmpo as a wrecking ball in transition. Nobody averages more than Giannis’s 8.6 points in transition per game.

Antetokounmpo has been terrorizing the entire league for a while now, but is a particularly bad match-up for the Bulls this season, who don’t have the proper size to throw at him. In the three regular season match-ups against Chicago so far, Giannis has averaged 29.7 points, 15.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks while shooting 56.1% from the field. It will be fascinating to see if head coach Billy Donovan alters the starting lineup against the Bucks Tuesday, perhaps swapping out Ayo Dosunmo for Patrick Williams to give him a crack at Antetokounmpo.

Make sure to check out our Bulls forum for the latest on the team.

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