A sense of dread accompanied the Chicago Bulls up Interstate 94 for their first postseason game in five years.
No one was giving them a shot in their first-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks. Even the most optimistic Bulls fans were just hoping to see a few good games before heading into the offseason and turning their attention to the baseball season.
Changing the narrative in Game 1 against the Bucks was seemingly imperative if the Bulls wanted to make this a competitive series. But when Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a 3-pointer a minute and a half into the game to give the Bucks a quick 9-0 lead, it seemed like the game was decided before the first State Farm commercial
There was no need for any spoiler alerts. We’d all seen this movie before.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a blowout at the Fiserv Forum.
The Bulls bounced back from a 16-point deficit to make it a game, only to watch the Bucks hold on for a 93-86 win.
Nikola Vučević’s 24 points and 17 rebounds weren’t enough as the Bucks breathed a sigh of relief in a wild game. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 27 points and 16 rebounds, dominating like he did in last year’s postseason.
“It’s tough,” Zach LaVine said. “After that first little run they had in the first quarter, we fought back and we let them know that we were here. I think it’s going to be a good matchup.”
LaVine and DeMar DeRozan both shot poorly, scoring 18 points apiece on combined 12-for-44 shooting. Vučević was 9 of 27, and he and LaVine were a combined 4 of 20 on 3s. That the Bulls were able to overcome that — and a 47-37 disadvantage on the boards — and still have a chance should boost their confidence heading into Game 2.
“It wasn’t just me,” DeRozan said of his off night. “All of us. We’ve just got to get that feel. Every shot I took felt good. I guarantee it — me, Zach and Vooch aren’t going to miss that many shots again. We’ve just got to keep (doing) what we did defensively and try to take that (shooting) to another level.”
Bulls Nation was well-represented in Game 1, with enough road-tripping fans on hand to loudly boo Grayson Allen when the Bucks guard entered in the first quarter and every time he popped off the bench. You can’t blame Bucks fans for treating this first-round series like an afterthought and putting their tickets on the resale market.
They’re pacing themselves for June, and with snow in the forecast for Monday, that seemed like a long, long way away.
The Deer District — that hot spot outside Fiserv Forum that Milwaukee made famous during last year’s championship run — was largely empty before tipoff. Temperatures in the 30s and an early evening starting time on Easter Sunday were likely factors, not to mention an opponent no one in town was taking seriously. Bucks fans at one point began chanting, “O-ver-ra-ted,” at the Bulls as though they were facing a college team.
The Bulls didn’t care about the extraneous noise. They knew the task at hand and that a Game 1 win would mute all the talk about a short series.
If the Bucks were going to lose a game in the series, this was supposed to be the one there for the taking. The Bucks were 1-6 in Game 1s over the last two postseasons, but Bulls coach Billy Donovan said he didn’t make it a point to “go back and talk about something that happened a year or two or three years ago in a Game 1 of a first-round playoff series and say this is a trend.”
The Bulls shrugged off their dreadful start to pull within eight at halftime, trailing 51-43, but Antetokounmpo already had 17 points and 11 rebounds and the Bulls had shot 31.7% from the field and an abysmal 17.6% from 3-point range. The series was playing out as most had envisioned.
“They really hurt us on the backboard, and when they are there and we do come down with rebounds, we’ve got to be able to run,” Donovan said. “We took a lot of rushed pull-up jump shots, quick 3s. We’ve got to try to get downhill to the basket and then spray it out.”
But the Bulls slowly chipped away in the third, and when Vučević sank a 3 with 4:39 left in the quarter, the game was tied and Bulls fans erupted in unison, making Fiserv Forum sound like United Center North. Coby White hit a 3 to give the Bulls their first lead and converted a driving layup on the next possession.
From then on it was a back-and-forth thriller to the end. The Bucks led 87-82 with 2½ minutes left when DeRozan hit a jumper and rebounded a Brook Lopez miss. A backdoor pass from Vučević to Alex Caruso led to a layup that sliced the deficit to one.
The Bulls had chances in the final minute, but Vučević missed a putback and LaVine misfired on a 3-point attempt with 30 seconds remaining. Jrue Holiday’s two free throws with 15.3 seconds left proved to be the dagger.
DeRozan agreed it was a missed opportunity to steal the opener on the road.
“They did what they were supposed to do at home,” he said. “We’ve got another opportunity to steal home court. That’s our goal now.
“We’ve got a lot we can dissect from this game … to clean up and be better at. It definitely sucks to miss an opportunity. But we’ve got one more opportunity in Milwaukee before we go back to Chicago.”
Actually the Bulls headed back to Chicago after the game to sleep in their own beds and practice at the Advocate Center on Monday and Tuesday. Donovan said the short drive home and two-day break could be to their advantage.
“The convenience of location has been good at least from the travel standpoint late in the year,” he said. “That’s one thing I thought was great in the bubble during the (2020) playoffs — no travel, just the bus from the hotel to Disney and back.
“And there is something to be said for that. If we had a day in between, we’d definitely have stayed here. But because we have two days (off), we have a chance to get home at a decent time and those guys can sleep in their own bed, practice (Monday) and Tuesday and come back up.”
The Bulls can sleep well knowing they made the Bucks work for their Game 1 win. But if they want to make this a long series, they have to do a little bit more.