Preview: Bucks Host Deng-less Bulls

Gary Dineen/NBAE Getty Images

Gary Dineen/NBAE Getty Images

Nate Wolters (left) swoops to the basket as Chicago’s Tony Snell contests.

After shipping Luol Deng to the Cavaliers on Monday, the Bulls face an identity crisis. At 15-18, and without Derrick Rose for the foreseeable future, they’re stuck between contending for a playoff spot in the lowly East and packing it in in hopes of a high draft pick come June. If the season were to end today, Chicago would finish with the sixth seed in the East, just one spot lower than last season. While fans seem to be split on the issue, Chicago will have a very good chance to win its second straight game of the post-Deng era.

Chicago took down Phoenix 92-87 Tuesday behind 19 points and 10 rebounds from Taj Gibson. Playing without Deng, Chicago held the Eric Bledsoe-less Suns to 40.2 percent shooting while outrebounding Phoenix 50-41 overall. Mike Dunleavy stepped in as the starting small forward, joining Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Gibson and Joakim Noah in the starting lineup. The Bulls were also without Carlos Boozer, who is expected to return Friday after missing two contests with a knee injury.

Whether Chicago is, indeed, looking for wins or not, heading north to Milwaukee is one place where victories have come easy for opponents this season. The Bucks are a league-worst 7-27 overall and 3-13 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. After defeating the Lakers on New Year’s Eve, Milwaukee has dropped three straight by an average of 16 points. Most recently, the Bucks fell 101-80 to the Warriors on Tuesday. The final score was a bit deceiving, though, as Milwaukee trailed by just two at halftime before the Warriors heated up from the field and outscored Milwaukee 51-32 in the second half. Ersan Ilyasova led the Bucks with 20 points.

Milwaukee and Chicago have already met twice this season with each team winning on the opponents’ floor. The Bucks earned an ugly, 78-74 victory on Dec. 10 while Chicago pulled out a 91-90 win three days later. Big men were the difference on both occasions. John Henson scored 25 points and had 14 rebounds in the Milwaukee victory, while Joakim Noah put up 21 points and 18 boards when Chicago came out on top.

Henson is a game-time call Friday, as he’s missed the last five games due to a lower leg injury. He increased his activity level in practice Thursday, but if he does play there’s a good chance he’ll see his minutes limited. Should Henson sit out, he’ll likely make his return Saturday in Oklahoma City.

Winners of four out of their last five, the Bulls are almost completely healthy, with the obvious exception of Rose. Noah is listed as day-to-day with an illness but is expected to play, as is Mike Dunleavy, who practiced in full Thursday after falling on his elbow during Tuesday’s win.

What to watch for:

- Chicago’s Jimmy Butler returns to Milwaukee, where he played collegiately at Marquette University. In the teams’ first meeting, Butler scored 16 points but shot just 4-of-12 from the field. He did not play in the second matchup after suffering a toe injury that cost him 11 games. Over the past three games, Butler is shooting just 24.7 percent from the field. However, Chicago has won all three. “Jimmy just has to be himself,” Thibodeau told the team’s official website. “He already had a big role with our team. He’s had some bumps this year because of the injuries, but I think he’s finding his rhythm and he’s playing at a high level right now. (He needs to) just keep doing the things that he’s doing.”

- If you’re looking for a high-scoring affair, run. Just start running. Get as far away from Milwaukee as possible. Chicago is the league’s second-best defensive team and worst offensive team. Couple that with Milwaukee’s second-worst offense and you have yourself a strugglefest that could very well be a race to 80 points.

- Giannis Antetokounmpo has been garnering league-wide buzz this season – and for good reason. The lanky rookie surprisingly cracked the starting lineup last month and has now started the last 10 contests. However, he’s been a non-factor each of the last two games, scoring a combined two points (1-5 FG) to go with eight rebounds and five assists. It’s not that he’s played poorly – though he was held scoreless and committed five turnovers against Phoenix – he’s just lacked the aggression that was often on display earlier in the year. Things won’t be easy against the defensive-minded Bulls, but he’ll likely be defended by Mike Dunleavy, which should be an advantageous matchup.

- Gary Neal was a DNP-CD in Tuesday’s loss to the Warriors after reports surfaced earlier in the day that Milwaukee is looking to move the shooting guard. Neal was reportedly involved in a postgame locker room spat with Larry Sanders last weekend in which he told Sanders: “I earn my money. You should try it sometime.” Both the team and players have since downplayed the incident, but it’s hard to believe shopping Neal is a mere coincidence. Larry Drew has not said whether Neal will play Friday, though it’s unlikely he’ll fail to see the court for the second straight game.

Projected Starters

Milwaukee

PG – Brandon Knight

SG – Luke Ridnour

SF – Giannis Antetkounmpo

PF – Ersan Ilyasova

C – Larry Sanders

Chicago

PG – Kirk Hinrich

SG – Jimmy Butler

SF – Mike Dunleavy

PF – Carlos Boozer

C – Joakim Noah

Rankings

Milwaukee

Scoring: 29th (92.4)

Rebounding: 26th (41.1)

Assists: 18th (20.5)

Points allowed: 18th (100.6)

Chicago

Scoring: 30th (91.4)

Rebounding: 8th (44.9)

Assists: 16th (21.6)

Points allowed: 2nd (92.0)

Leaders

Points: Boozer (14.7), Knight (15.2)

Rebounds: Noah (10.3), Henson (8.0)

Assists: Augustin (6.1), Knight (4.5)

Blocks: Gibson (1.4), Henson (2.3)

Full player statistics

Click to enlarge

Chicago

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Milwaukee

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First matchup highlights

Second matchup highlights

Topics: Carlos Boozer, Gary Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Larry Sanders, Luol Deng, Milwaukee Bucks

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