The NBA Playoffs are upon us, and one of the surprise teams in the field this year is the hometown Milwaukee Bucks. After the worst season in franchise history last year, with only 15 wins, the Bucks completely transformed. New ownership, new coach, new results. This year, the Bucks finished 41-41, enough to qualify for the No. 6 seed in the postseason. That will pit them against the No. 3 seed and division rival Chicago Bulls, who finished 50-32 and, with star point guard Derrick Rose now healthy, are thought of as a threat to win the Eastern Conference.
The Bucks, who only won one out of four games against the Bulls during the season, face a tall task. Depth, defense and cohesiveness are three qualities that define Chicago, and with Rose back in the fold, they become much more dangerous on the offensive end. Without further ado, here are the player matchups.
POINT GUARD: Michael Carter-Williams (Bucks) vs. Derrick Rose (Bulls): Carter-Williams was acquired in a post-All-Star break trade from the Philadelphia 76ers in a three team deal that saw former starter Brandon Knight go to the Phoenix Suns. The Bucks struggled following the trade as the talented MCW struggled to find his niche within the team. However, he has looked a lot more comfortable lately, and it has showed up in his play, as he scored 33 and 30 points in games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and 76ers, respectively. He is a 6’6”, lanky guard with solid penetrating and passing abilities, explosive athleticism and is a disruptive defender due to his abundant length. His height also helps him get a high number of rebounds for his position. However, his jump shot needs a lot of work, as it can look woeful at times. In addition, he might find it difficult to penetrate and finish against Chicago’s tough defense and rim protector, Joakim Noah.
Rose, when healthy (that hasn’t been the case for much of the past four seasons), is one of the best, most electrifying guards in the NBA. There are not many players who can match his quickness and explosive leaping ability, although both have been dwindled somewhat by the knee injuries he has sustained. In addition, like his matchup, Rose’s jumper is spotty. However, despite him not being the player he was when he became the youngest player to win an MVP award (2011), he still can get to the basket with the best of them, and the Bucks do not have an interior defender as good as Noah. To add to that, his assist numbers are starting to increase, which shows his ability to get his teammates involved, largely through the drive-and-kick. He recently returned from a torn meniscus (the same injury that ended his season last year) and, in his third game back, looked as if he was quickly returning to form. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has limited Rose’s workload in order to preserve him for the playoffs. The Bulls have been a much better team with Rose in the lineup, which demonstrates his leadership qualities as much as it does his uncanny basketball talent.
Carter-Williams is a talented point guard who is capable of helping the Bucks in a multitude of ways. However, Rose, despite his injury concerns, is a former MVP who should be extremely difficult for MCW and the Bucks to contain. This is, quite possibly, the most entertaining matchup of the series, but Rose is the better player at this point. Edge: Bulls
SHOOTING GUARD: Khris Middleton (Bucks) vs. Jimmy Butler (Bulls): Middleton kind of exemplifies the Bucks, as a team, this year. He has been a revelation, despite some consistency issues, as he has proven capable of big scoring numbers. His shot is very polished and he has decent driving ability. In addition, he has improved as the season has progressed and continues to be on the upswing as a player. Like his backcourt mate, Carter-Williams, he is a solid passer and rebounder. He can be a little bit of a liability defensively, but his length does sometimes enable him to jump into the passing lanes from time to time. However, most of his contribution comes offensively, as he has earned the nickname “Money”. His ability to score in bunches will be key for the Bucks’ playoff success.
Butler has possibly developed more than any other player in the NBA this season. The former Marquette University star appears to be the frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. He averaged a shade over 20 points per game this season, as his offensive repertoire expanded immensely this season. His ability to drive and draw fouls is very similar to his backcourt mate Rose, and his mid- and long-range jump shot continue to develop. In addition, he is a lockdown defender who possesses toughness second to none. His gaudy numbers don’t begin to tell the story, as he does all of the little things as well to help the Bulls win.
Middleton has become a solid offensive player for Milwaukee who has hit some big shots and put up solid numbers for the Bucks, particularly during the second half of the season. However, Butler has looked like a star throughout the season, and one would be foolish to think that will change in the playoffs. Edge: Bulls
SMALL FORWARD: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) vs. Mike Dunleavy (Bulls): Giannis, one of the most versatile players in the NBA in only his second season, poses matchup problems for every team he faces. His 6’11 lanky frame along with his leaping ability make him a force defensively, on the boards, and slashing to the basket. In addition, he has expanded his shooting range this season to include mid-range jumpers and has also improved from the free throw line. His versatility even stretches to his ability to play the point once in a while, as his passing skills make him a solid facilitator for a player of his stature. All of his numbers improved from his rookie season, and he is probably developing faster than any player on the young Bucks roster.
Dunleavy, a former Buck, is in the twilight of his career at age 34. He still, however, poses an uncanny ability to knock down three-pointers and, if he gets hot, can fill the basket with relative ease. In addition, his length gives him the ability to get his shot off over almost any defender. At this point, though, he does not provide much else. He has never been a very good defender, and his offensive skills, at this point, don’t extend much closer to the basket. At one time, he was a solid microwave type of player with his ability to score in bunches, and he can still provide some punch offensively if his shot if falling. Finally, he provides veteran leadership to a team hungry for a deep postseason run.
Giannis is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA, and should continue his development in his first postseason stint. Dunleavy is a veteran shooter who starts at the one position where the Bulls don’t have much firepower. Edge: Bucks
POWER FORWARD: Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks) vs. Pau Gasol (Bulls): Ilyasova, the longest-tenured current Buck, has somehow found his niche with every roster he has played with in Milwaukee. His unique style of play and ability to fill the basket and grab rebounds has made him an indispensable player throughout all the personnel turnover of the past few years. This season was no different. In a year where many fans thought he might be traded, he found his way into the starting lineup once again (thanks largely to the season-ending injury to rookie, Jabari Parker). Ilyasova is the quintessential stretch-four with his deft shooting touch and ability to draw bigger defenders away from the basket. In addition, his mid-range shot and finesse post moves make him a tough matchup for anybody. Defensively, he is not the best player, but he does hit the boards hard. He, along with his frontcourt mate Zaza Pachulia, can provide solid leadership for an otherwise very young team.
Gasol has revived his stellar career in his first season with the Bulls. After the Lakers fell apart and his contract expired, the Bulls signed him, and his play shows he couldn’t be happier. He has averaged a double-double this season and has been the main reason why the Bulls have remained one of the East’s top teams in the absence of Rose. He can score from anywhere inside the three-point line and is a terror on both the offensive and defensive glass. His length also can be a problem defensively, as he gives Chicago a 7-footer to go along with Noah in defending the paint. In addition, he still can play at such a high level at the age of 34. Gasol, with his wide array of post moves and deft shooting touch inside the arc, make him almost impossible to guard without help. Expect defensive specialist forward John Henson to get a lot of playing time to help Milwaukee deal with the versatile Gasol.
Ilyasova continues to be one of the Bucks’ most valuable players due to his offensive versatility and rebounding effort, and now, he is a veteran leader. However, Gasol is one of the league’s best at his position and has not slowed down one bit in his mid-30s. Matter of fact, he had one of the best seasons of his career this season. Finally, he’s a proven winner, having won two championships and getting to three NBA Finals with the Lakers. Edge: Bulls
CENTER: Zaza Pachulia (Bucks) vs. Joakim Noah (Bulls): Pachulia, in his second stint with the Bucks, has played very well in the absence of Larry Sanders, the once-thought-of center of the future for the franchise. He is a rugged player who also has a fair amount of offensive skills. He can score anywhere near the basket and has shown a nice mid-range touch for the center position. In addition, he can bang with nearly anyone down low, as his burly frame gives him the ability to be a double-double threat every game. However, he has shown a tendency to disappear during games, especially when he gets into foul trouble. This is why the Bucks acquired Miles Plumlee in the three-team deal to get MCW. Still, when he is on his game, he is a load for any team to deal with.
Noah, consistently one of the top defensive centers (and players) in the league, continues to be an outstanding rim protector and rebounder. In addition, he is one of the most high-energy players in the NBA, constantly providing emotional fire for himself and his teammates. He is the prototypical “glue guy”, as he also has stuck up for his teammates on many occasions, most notably Rose during his injury struggles. He doesn’t provide much help offensively, getting most of his baskets on put-backs, interior dunks and alley-oops. However, he is one of the best passing centers in the league, as he, in the absence of Rose, has had games in which he puts up high assist numbers, and he consistently ranks among the league leaders in assists for centers. In addition, he is a better free throw shooter than many centers, making him that much more valuable in crunch time. Also, with the acquisitions of players like Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, the improvement of Butler and Rose playing more than half of the season for the first time since 2011-12, the need for Noah to produce offensively is not high.
Pachulia and Noah both are relentless interior forces that provide much more than just rim protection and rebounding. Pachulia is more of an offensive threat than Noah, while Noah is nearly impossible to score on inside. Both players hit the boards nearly equally, as Pachulia’s rebounding numbers in the latter half of the season are comparable with Noah’s due to his receiving increased playing time. Neither team has a true edge here. Edge: Even
BENCH: Jerryd Bayless, Jared Dudley, Miles Plumlee, John Henson, O.J. Mayo (Bucks) vs. Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, Tony Snell (Bulls): The Bulls have been regarded as one of the league’s deepest teams this season, with firepower coming from players like Brooks and Mirotic, defensive help from Gibson and Snell, and veteran leadership from Hinrich. Brooks has given the Bulls a steady hand at point guard in the absence of Rose, and Hinrich has helped with that as well. Mirotic, in his rookie season, has shown a unique skill set and ability to fill the basket, especially in the latter half of the season. Gibson is a somewhat undersized but extremely tough inside player who has decent mid-range game and explosive leaping ability, making him an effective shot-swatter inside. Snell continues to develop in his second season, providing good man defense and an improving offensive arsenal.
One of the more underrated qualities of the Bucks this season has been their depth. Dudley, once a starter, seems to produce better off of the bench as a 3-point specialist. Bayless, a versatile guard who helps the team in almost all facets, provides quality energy on both ends of the floor. Plumlee, a mid-season pickup, has taken a while to get comfortable with the team, but he has shown in limited minutes that he can provide solid interior play, mostly on the boards. Henson, a wildly athletic, lanky power forward who plays center in a pinch, is probably the Bucks best shot-blocker, and he can provide abundant rebounding help as well. However, he does, with his lack of bulk, show a tendency to get pushed around by stronger players. O.J. Mayo is the ultimate microwave guy off the bench, showing the ability to score upwards of 25-30 points in games here and there. He does struggle with consistency at times and has been somewhat of a disappointment for the Bucks. However, one cannot deny his ability to fill the basket.
Depth is a strength of both teams, as both the Bucks and Bulls have quality players who can give their starters a break. However, the Bulls hold a slight edge here, as players like Brooks, Mirotic and Gibson (the starting PF before Gasol signed) would probably be starters for most of the other teams in the NBA. Still, both teams bring a lot of production off of the bench on both ends of the floor. Edge: Bulls
COACH: Jason Kidd (Bucks) vs. Tom Thibodeau (Bulls): Kidd, even though he coached the veteran Nets last season following his retirement as a player, could essentially say he started his coaching career with the Bucks. A young team was just what the doctor ordered for a recently retired great who probably looked forward to mentoring younger players rather than “coaching” players that he once played with/against in his prime. That probably explains how the Bucks were able to lure him away from the Nets to replace Larry Drew. Like his team, he is a young, up-and-coming coach who has gotten the absolute most out of his team this season, as the Bucks played better than anyone had expected this season. In particular, he has developed his guards, as Knight was having the best season of his career this year before being traded, and Carter-Williams seems to be getting better all the time. Kidd is definitely a candidate for NBA Coach of the Year this season.
His counterpart, Thibodeau, is a proven defensive mastermind. A Doc Rivers protégé, he embodies the team aspect of basketball and toughness within his players. He has come under fire for overworking his star players, most notably Rose. However, the Bulls have been a consistent winner and regarded as one of the NBA’s grittiest teams during his 5-year-tenure. One of the most notable achievements for Thibs has been his ability to keep Chicago competitive in the absence of Rose, as they remained a playoff team during that time. That was no different this season. Thibodeau has not been the best offensive mind as a head coach, but his half-court style of play has forced many teams to play to his team’s tempo.
The battle of the coaches is quite even in this series. Kidd showed just how much of a basketball brain he has by wringing a 41-41 season out of a group that was expected by many to be one of the worst teams in the league again. Thibodeau has constantly proven that he can win without as much talent as many of his opponents, and, with a healthy complement of players, coaches one of the top teams in the NBA due to their strengths on both ends of the floor. Edge: Even
|Game 1||Sat, Apr. 18||Chicago||6:00 PM||Fox Sports WI, ESPN||620 WTMJ|
|Game 2||Mon, Apr. 20||Chicago||7:00 PM||Fox Sports WI, TNT||620 WTMJ|
|Game 3||Thur, Apr. 23||Milwaukee||7:00 PM||Fox Sports WI, NBA TV||620 WTMJ|
|Game 4||Sat, Apr. 25||Milwaukee||4:30 PM||Fox Sports WI, TNT||620 WTMJ|
|Game 5||Mon, Apr. 27||Chicago||TBD||TBD||620 WTMJ|
|Game 6||Thur, Apr. 30||Milwaukee||TBD||TBD||620 WTMJ|
|Game 7||Sat, May 2||Chicago||TBD||TBD/Fox Sports WI||620 WTMJ|
Stay tuned throughout the playoffs as Joe Halley and Josh Vinson cover the I-94 playoff series.