The Bucks are finally entering the playoffs.
They might jump straight to the NBA Finals.
At least by level of competition.
Milwaukee dispatched the overmatched Bulls with a 116-100 win in Game 5 of their first-round series. The Bucks advance to face the Celtics, who looked so impressive sweeping the Nets, with Game 1 of the premier second-round series Sunday.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (33 points on 11-of-15 shooting) is clearly ready for a stiffer test. But the Bucks’ chances could hinge on the health of Khris Middleton, who’s out with a sprained MCL. Milwaukee is the defending champion. But Boston has looked awesome for months and is clearly peaking at the right time.
Not at all peaking at the right time: Chicago. The Bulls already looked sub-postseason caliber with Lonzo Ball sidelined. Zach LaVine (coronavirus) and Alex Caruso (concussion) missing tonight’s game really left Chicago inept.
The Bucks cruised to a 29-point lead in the second quarter and led by double digits the final three quarters. Milwaukee’s defense was resolute, but not swarming. And didn’t need to be. The Bulls – who started Ayo Dosunmu and Javonte Green in the elimination game – missed 37 3-pointers, tied for second-most ever in a playoff game.
Only the 2020 Thunder, who missed 39 (7-for-46) in Game 5 vs. the Rockets, missed more than Chicago, which shot 15-for-52 from beyond the arc with many open looks.
So, the Bulls’ first full season since pushing in their chips ends with a whimper. Chicago traded for Nikola Vucevic last season and missed even the play-in tournament. Adding DeMar DeRozan, Ball and Caruso last summer led to early-season success and a playoff appearance. Not insignificant accomplishments.
But an uncompetitive first-round loss is not the standard formed when surrendering first-round draft picks and signing veterans to big contracts.
The big question: Will LaVine, an unrestricted free agent this summer, re-sign? DeRozan (32) and Vucevic (31) make the Bulls stronger in the short term, and the team could sustain winning with Ball (24) and Caruso (28). But LaVine (27) is the lynchpin to the entire plan. The guard is already a star and keeps improving (at least when healthy).
As the latter part of the regular season into this playoff series showed, Chicago doesn’t have enough margin for error to lose key supporting players. Keeping LaVine is nearly essential.