The Chicago Bulls knew what was coming when they exited the Fiserv Forum locker room for the second half of Game 2.
With a 63-49 lead in their pocket, the Bulls were more confident than they’d been in a game in weeks. But a double-digit lead only means so much when two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is staring you down from across the court.
So the Bulls knew what needed to happen to withstand the oncoming flurry from the Bucks — bend, but don’t break.
“We talked about it at halftime, not coming out of the second half lackadaisical,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We were ready for it. We had a lot of games this year where we came out in the third quarter and laid an egg. This time around we were just trying to understand the moment.”
The next two quarters devolved into a dogfight between the both team’s stars. Khris Middleton sank four 3-pointers in the third quarter. Antetokounmpo leapt between Bulls players to rebound a missed free throw and jam it into the basket to cut the lead down to eight points, then smacked away DeRozan’s final shot of the quarter.
In the fourth quarter, DeRozan knocked down back-to-back jumpers over Antetokounmpo’s hand. Nikola Vučević sank a pair of 3-pointers from the top of the arc. Alex Caruso stepped in front of Antetokounmpo for the final play of the game, drawing a charge to snuff out the last attempt at a tying drive.
When the Bucks pulled within three points in the third, the Bulls stars grabbed each other to form a huddle on the court. The tone was urgent, but coach Billy Donovan said it held an undercurrent of self-belief: “Hey, we’re going to make a run. Now it’s time for us to respond. We’ve got to respond right now.”
For the Bulls, managing the topsy-turvy nature of a playoff game has been a key learning curve in this opening series. This is an unexperienced postseason team — DeRozan, Caruso and Tristan Thompson have played and won in the postseason, but stars like Zach LaVine are unexperienced in this atmosphere.
Donovan warned his players that it’s rare to hold a lead in the playoffs. That rang true in Game 2 as the Bulls repelled three Bucks’ comeback attempts that nearly swung the score.
The Bucks went on a 17-6 run to close the third quarter. The Bulls countered with a 9-0 run to start the fourth. Each time the score ticked closer, the Milwaukee crowd rumbled into a pitched roar, heightening every play and jeering every mistake.
“The really good teams in this league, they do that,” Donovan said. “They understand the swings in the game, they don’t get emotionally wrapped up and they’re able to focus on the next possession in front of them and just go out there and play. I think we’ve learned some of that.”
At times this season, the Bulls have looked shaken, even defeated. They dug themselves into holes in first quarters and imploded in third quarters. Injuries forced young players into roles they weren’t expected to carry. The team ended the regular season with a dismal losing spell, giving up crushing losses that created a fair cloud of questions over whether this team had the legs to even get a single playoff win.
“The last four home games, that really was not us at all,” Donovan said. “It was disappointing to be playing and feel like we were better than that.”
But Wednesday’s win returned the Bulls to the roots of the team that sat atop the Eastern Conference at the start of the year.
Caruso noted the game plan for Game 2 wasn’t that different from Game 1. The defensive scheme stayed the same. The offense still ran through DeRozan and Vučević. The difference came from intensity, an intangible that required nonstop focus to keep the Bucks from breaking through.
The win gave the Bulls a lift they’ve been needing for months. And as they return to Chicago for their first home playoff game, it’s the type of momentum they hope can swing a series.
“We had a long season, we had a lot of adversity,” Caruso said. “It was almost a little bit like we were just trying to start the playoffs already. We were kind of in a hole, but we got our spirit back.”