Bucks vs. Bulls: Divisional Games Count Double


Even if he wasn’t with the Bucks last season, let’s imagine Khris Middleton was yelling “Traitor!” while guarded by Mike Dunleavy in the preseason. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

With a 4-16 record, it’s easy to see that lucky breaks have been few and far between for the Bucks this season. Fans can consider Tuesday night’s contest against the Bulls in Chicago a prohibitive blessing, in that respect. The Deer are will be without Caron Butler, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia and Larry Sanders due to a variety of injuries, but they are catching the Bulls in an injury-heavy phase, as well. Scoring leader Luol Deng (19.4 points per game) and primary pick-pocketer Jimmy Butler (1.8 steals per game), plus the again-hurt Derrick Rose, will sit out the game. This bodes well for Milwaukee, given they have taken the last two games the teams played in Chicago, and have a fighting chance to grab their fifth win tonight.

The fact that this is a face-off of Central Division opponents would make this game doubly important if the Indiana Pacers didn’t have a commanding grip on the Central in addition to a solid handle on the Eastern Conference as a whole. There is a level of parity which houses most teams in the East, though, particularly those sitting between no. 7 (Washington) and no. 15 (Milwaukee) in the standings. If the playoffs were to begin today, Chicago’s 8-10 record would qualify the Bulls for the eight-seed, while the Bucks would…still be in contention for the top pick in June’s draft. But a 4-6 stride is easy to swing in the NBA, especially when a team is missing its top scorer and one of the Association’s best regarded, young perimeter defenders. That sounds an awful lot like the Bulls’ current situation, doesn’t it? Deng is sitting out this evening with tightness in his left Achilles tendon stemming from an injury originally suffered on Nov. 27. The soreness caused Deng to miss the Bulls’ contest against the Pistons on Saturday, and if his coaching staff and front office are being extra cautious by keeping him out, it can’t really be frowned upon in light of the time more serious Achilles wounds have caused Chauncey Billups and Kobe Bryant in recent history, even is Deng is considerably younger.

The issues ailing Milwaukee make roster realignments more necessary. At one point this season, Butler was the Bucks’ leading scorer, and knee swelling in a player over 30 is nothing to mess with by bringing him back too early. Pachulia is in a walking boot; Sanders is still recovering from a torn tendon in his right thumb. Their situations put them on the bench with a bit more gravitas than a cautionary DNP. The upside to this, obviously, is that it frees up minutes for the Bucks’ young players like John Henson (continually improving), Ekpe Udoh (good at defense even if it doesn’t show up in the box score), Giannis Antetokounmpo (occasionally stellar, always interesting), and Nate Wolters (tied with starting point guard Brandon Knight for a team-leading 4.3 assists per game).

The Bucks’ season could go one of two ways: up toward their usual middle-of-the-pack standard or plateauing to remain among the NBA’s dregs. A few more strokes of good luck, like the one they’re looking at in Chicago tonight, could drastically change the appearance of Milwaukee’s season. It’s amazing what one overtime win against a sub-.500 Wizards team can do, or the series of events it can potentially set off, or even the optimism it can foster for a victory-starved franchise. Thank you, watered down Eastern Conference.

What to Watch For

– Guard Depth: It’s something the Bucks were severely lacking last season and, due to their litany of ailments, the Bulls cannot currently rely on. Rose is gone for the foreseeable future, Butler’s big toe is still sprained and third-string point guard Mike James just returned to practice yesterday after being listed as “out.” Veteran Kirk Hinrich and rookie Tony Snell are the only two consistent players in Chicago’s back court (Marquis Teague, consistent? Please), whereas Milwaukee is trotting out O.J. Mayo’s every-night scoring potential, Knight, vet Luke Ridnour and two appealing rookies (Wolters and Antetokounmpo). It’s an unfamiliar situation for the Bucks, who once had just three guards in total in 2012-13. If Larry Drew makes the call to run the floor, his guards could be game-changers.

– Facing Another Former Buck: With Deng sidelined, Mike Dunleavy will likely start at small forward for the Bulls. Dunleavy was one of the Bucks’ more reliable floor-stretching threats in 2012-13, and has scored 11 or more points in each of his three starts, and chipped in three more double-digit scoring efforts from the bench this season. Khris Middleton has proven his worth in the SF slot, though, dropping 29 points to lead the Bucks to an OT win against the Wizards last week.

– Joakim or Joking?: Joakim Noah is the spark-plug for Chicago’s starting line-up and often ends up being the team’s energetic leader. Minus their top two centers, the Bucks must slide Henson and Udoh over to the five-spot at times between spurts of playing time for Miroslav Raduljica. It will be a tough battle of any of them against an All-Star caliber opponent, but it also brings up questions about the power forward match-up. Carlos Boozer has had a resurgent start to the season, shooting 48 percent from the field while scoring 15.6 ppg (behind only Rose and Deng) and leading all Bulls in per-36 minutes scoring pace with 18.5 points. Boozer also follows only Noah in rebounding, snaring 8.7 per game.Another Chicago power forward, Taj Gibson, has also come up big lately. Depending on who Milwaukee is playing at the center position at any given time, the Bulls could have a major advantage in the PF match-up. For all of his potential and offensive worth, Ersan Ilyasova is not a reliable defender; Henson is primarily a scorer even if his blocking numbers are up this season; and Udoh is a trade-off of points for smart defending.