NBA Playoffs: Bucks survive late Bulls charge to take Game 1

Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Despite the Chicago Bulls erasing a 16-point first-half deficit, a fourth quarter devoid of DeMar DeRozan's magic allowed the Milwaukee Bucks to escape with a 93-86 win in Game 1 of the opening round of the NBA Playoffs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to a tight win over the Bulls.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to a tight win over the Bulls.  © USA TODAY Sports

Neither team cracked 100 points in an ugly night of bludgeoning basketball as both teams struggled to make shots. The Bulls shot 32.3% from the field and went 7 for 37 from 3-point range, while the Bucks went 15 for 23 from the free-throw line.

The early minutes looked dire for the Bulls. Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo combined for a 9-0 opening burst, and the Bucks quickly climbed to a 16-point lead. The Bulls knew they couldn't counter the size of the Bucks straight up, but they also failed to capitalize on a key advantage from long range.

The Bucks sacrifice defending the 3-point line to focus nearly all of their defensive attention on the paint, where Antetokounmpo and Lopez loom large to affect every layup and post-up. This left the long-range shots wide open, but the Bulls went 3 for 17 from 3-point range in the first half, including a 10-minute stretch without hitting a shot behind the arc.

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The Bulls outscored the Bucks 22-17 in the second quarter, forcing offense through free throws to chisel the deficit to 51-43 at the half. They were bolstered by a poor shooting performance by the Bucks, who went 6 for 22 from the field in the second quarter and 5 for 10 from the line in the first half.

Chicago needed all three of its All-Stars to show out to keep level with the Bucks. Nikola Vučević fulfilled that task in the third quarter, aggressively backing down Lopez for a post-up bucket, then splashing a tying 3-pointer on the next play. Coby White knocked down a 3 to lift the Bulls into a 67-64 lead – their first of the night – with 3:11 left in the third.

The Bulls stretched their short-lived lead to five, but the Bucks roared back, steadily chipping at that advantage until it became anyone's game. As Zach LaVine's last-ditch shot from beyond the three-point line missed the mark, the defending champs knew they had it made.

The player spotlight

Giannis finished with 27 points and 16 rebounds against the Bulls.
Giannis finished with 27 points and 16 rebounds against the Bulls.  © USA TODAY Sports

In the end, the Bucks had a simple answer to quell any Bulls comeback – Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The big man admitted his team were far from their best on the night, which made his contribution of 27 points and 16 rebounds all the more decisive.

"Nobody played well tonight, but as a team we were able to get the win," he told TNT afterwards.

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NBA Coach Ime Udoka speaks out on huge suspension from Boston Celtics

Giannis also admitted the long wait between games led to some rustiness: "It's been a long eight days, nine days without playing a game. We're a little bit out of rhythm."

Despite all that, he and his side found the composure and quality needed to hold off a serious challenge.

The big picture

The Bulls' Nikola Vučević was a standout performer in a narrow loss for Chicago.
The Bulls' Nikola Vučević was a standout performer in a narrow loss for Chicago.  © USA TODAY Sports

In the fourth quarter of any game, the Chicago Bulls are always comfortable with a single-digit deficit and the ball in DeMar DeRozan's hands. That has been a tried-and-true formula throughout DeRozan's first season in Chicago.

This time, though, he couldn't deliver any late-game heroics. DeRozan didn't make a fourth-quarter basket until 2:11 remained in the game, going 1-for-7 in the quarter, and he took only two free throws in the second half.

But the flip side to that coin is that the Bulls were just a few percentage points in performance from pulling off a major win against a major title contender. For a team that was playing its first postseason game in five years, that can only be reason for hope.

Game 2 of the series is on Wednesday in Milwaukee.

Cover photo: USA TODAY Sports

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