Bulls craft best defensive game yet, beat Bucks on the road


The Bulls couldn’t have begun a six-game trip better than they did Wednesday night, with a 118-113 Thanksgiving eve victory at Milwaukee.

Any win over the Bucks, an Eastern Conference heavyweight, particularly at their place, is significant. It was the first time the Bulls have done so since 2017. But two things made Chicago’s win especially impressive: It succeeded Monday’s solid home win over league-best Boston, and the Bulls delivered on the defensive end.

If you were too busy drinking eggnog and singing carols to watch the Bulls on Wednesday, you missed their best defensive game yet. They also won their first clutch-time game this season. Chicago entered 0-6 in games decided by five points or fewer. In crafting a complete game against the Bucks, the Bulls took a big step toward proving their second win in three tries against Boston on Monday was not a fluke and that their improved play against the league’s elite appears equally legitimate.

Throughout the Bucks game, the Bulls looked like a completely different team. Coby White, in only his third game back from a quad injury that sidelined him for eight straight contests, repeatedly sacrificed his body by diving for multiple loose balls. DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso drew charges. Patrick Williams transformed into a rim protector, one of five Bulls with two blocks as the team registered a season-high 12. Ayo Dosunmu perfectly timed a chase-down block on Grayson Allen. Andre Drummond gobbled up rebounds and was spotted successfully defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in isolation on the perimeter. On and on it went Wednesday as the Bulls, for one night, shed their inconsistent ways and played like a team finally ready to turn the corner.

“That’s been our issue all year, not playing as close to 48 minutes as possible on the defensive end,” DeRozan told NBC Sports Chicago’s broadcast crew in his on-court, walk-off interview. “We’ve been putting together defensive stops for longer stretches of games. And it shows. We’ve got to do that, especially competing against the good teams in this league.”

Despite their 8-10 record, the Bulls so far have fared far better against better competition. They’re 6-5 against Miami, Cleveland, Boston, Milwaukee, Brooklyn,  Philadelphia and Denver. Against the Bucks, the Bulls got a team-high 36 points from DeRozan to go with his eight assists. And while they needed his second-half shot-making (18 points on 7-for-9 shooting in the third quarter) to stave off the Bucks, his defense arguably was at its best. DeRozan had several sequences of stout individual defense, standing out most for standing up Antetokounmpo on an iso attempt originating from the left block and forcing a contested miss. His efforts embodied the team-wide defensive performance.

“Just being contagious when it comes to being physical,” DeRozan told the team broadcast. “Defensive end, everybody’s communicating. Playing hard. Competing. That’s what it’s all about. That’s one thing we stressed, continuing to compete whether we’re making shots or missing shots. That’s what we did these last two games, and we’re trying to keep it going.”

Antetokounmpo almost took over in the second half to salvage a Bucks victory. After a strong defensive performance against him led by Williams but supported by many others in the first half, Antetokounmpo erupted in the final half. He scored 28 of his team-high 36 points with six rebounds and four assists after halftime. When the Bulls took a 94-84 lead with 10:56 remaining, Antetokounmpo scored or assisted on 20 straight Bucks points as part of a 20-10 Milwaukee run that made it a 104-104 tie with 5:03 remaining. But the Bulls didn’t break.

White, who scored 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting off the bench, made huge back-to-back 3s inside the final 62 seconds to tie it and then give the Bulls a three-point lead. Nikola Vučević, two games after missing a pair of critical free throws with 12 seconds remaining against Orlando, followed White’s bombs with a back-breaking 3 off a feed from DeRozan that put the Bulls ahead six with 20.6 seconds to play.

Without key reserve guard Goran Dragić, the Bulls still had six players score in double figures while hitting the magical 30-assist mark for the third time this season and shooting 49.4 percent. Their ball movement impressed as much as their defense, with sound drive-and-kick passes to open shooters and slick pocket passes that slipped through tight windows out of pick-and-rolls.

At both ends, it appeared the Bulls found a winning formula, if not for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the remainder of this road trip. It continues with Oklahoma City on Friday and snakes to play Utah, Phoenix and Golden State before concluding with Sacramento.

After undeniably encouraging wins against the Celtics and Bucks, the Bulls have an opportunity to seize some elusive early-season momentum.

(Photo of DeMar DeRozan guarding the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo: Benny Sieu / USA Today)


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