Heading into the final day of the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks just had to beat the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers to secure the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they rested everyone, punted the game and dropped into the No. 3 seed, setting up a matchup with their Central division rivals, the Chicago Bulls.
While many were surprised to see the defending champions maneuver around the playoff matchups like that, it was perhaps understandable considering the Bucks won all four regular-season matchups against the Bulls, including comprehensive double-digit victories in the final two meetings.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way, and their vast supply of playoff experience, the Bucks will feel confident they can continue their dominance over the Bulls come playoff time. Even more so considering the Bulls will be without Lonzo Ball and have not been playing their best basketball down the stretch.
Ahead of Game 1 on Sunday, here's everything you need to know about this first-round series:
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Milwaukee Bucks (3) vs. Chicago Bulls (6)
- Game 1: Bucks 93, Bulls 86
- Game 2: Bulls 114, Bucks 110
- Game 3: Bucks 111, Bulls 81
- Game 4: Bucks 119, Bulls 95
- Game 5: Bucks 116, Bulls 100
1. Bucks dominance vs. Bulls
Towards the end of the regular season, teams will occasionally have the ability to manipulate their seed and first-round playoff matchup. The Bucks were in that position time around, and they took advantage by throwing away their final game in order to drop from No. 2 in the Eastern Conference to No. 3. By doing so, they avoided the Brooklyn Nets and set up a matchup with the Chicago Bulls.
There are always varying schools of thought when teams make a move like that. Is it smart to set up a more favorable matchup? Or is it a sign of a lack of confidence? You can usually make a convincing case either way, but in the Bucks' case, it leans more towards the former. For one, they set it up so they'll only have to face one of the Nets and Boston Celtics, and if the Nets win that series they'll have homecourt advantage in the second round anyway.
More importantly, though, the Bucks have had the Bulls' number all season long and could be in line for an easy series. Coming off their grueling title run last season, a condensed offseason and an injury-riddled regular season, the Bucks will have to dig deep to win it all again. Getting through the first round in a smooth four or five games and earning extra rest could go a long way towards their repeat efforts.
In their four regular-season matchups, the Bucks went 4-0. (In fact, the Bucks are 11-1 against the Bulls in the Mike Budenholzer era, and the only loss was the final game of last regular season when no starters played.) And in the final two meetings, the Bucks won in convincing fashion by 28 and 21 points, respectively.
The Bucks are massive -1100 favorites in this series per Caesers Sportsbook, and for good reason. Milwaukee is the better team and this is a bad matchup for Chicago. Perhaps the biggest issue for the Bulls is that they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league after the All-Star break, allowing 117.9 points per 100 possession. That's bad news against a Bucks team that has gone all-in on offense. In particular, with their thin frontcourt, the Bulls have no answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who put up 26.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and five assists per game on 55.7 percent shooting in their regular-season meetings.
2. Bad blood
Back in 2015, the last time the Bucks and Bulls met in the playoffs, a young Giannis Antetokounmpo was ejected from an embarrassing series-ending 54-point loss in Game 6 for sprinting the length of the floor and body-checking Mike Dunleavy into the stands.
While things will hopefully not get to that level this year, there is some real bad blood between the two teams that stems from Grayson Allen's flagrant foul that broke Alex Caruso's wrist in January. Caruso later revealed that Allen never reached out to apologize or check on him after the incident.
"S---. Take one of my dogs out like that, we're gonna have issues," Thompson said prior to the team's March 22 matchup. "You gotta set the tone. That's what Bulls basketball is about, setting the tone." In that game, Thompson and Serge Ibaka got into it late in the fourth quarter and nearly came to blows.
When the teams met again earlier this month on April 5, Nikola Vucevic hit Allen with a hard foul that earned him a technical. Both Vucevic and Allen tried to downplay the incident in their postgame comments, but it was hard to wave away considering the recent history.
At the very least, these teams don't seem to like each other. The two fanbases, which are separated by just 90 miles and have been engaged in an intense regional rivalry for decades, really don't like each other. Combine that with playoff intensity and we could be in for a potentially combustible series.
3. Can Bucks keep DeRozan off the free throw line?
When the Bucks and Bulls met for the first time this season on Jan. 21, it was a slow-paced, grind-it-out game that the Bucks eked out down the stretch. On that night, DeMar DeRozan finished with 35 points and shot a season-high 18 free throws.
The next time the two teams played, on March 4, DeRozan had 29 points but just five free throw attempts. When they squared off again a few weeks later on March 22, DeRozan had 21 points and did not take a single free throw -- the only time that happened all season.
It was not an accident, either.
"I'm sure it's a talking point for every team," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said after the March 4 win. "It's a credit to our players to go out there and be disciplined, stay down, not foul him. I think playing him and him having 18 free throws against us in (the last game), there's some scar tissue there."
After giving up 18 free throws to DeRozan in the first game, the Bucks made it a point of emphasis to defend without fouling and keep him off the line. In the final three regular-season meetings combined, DeRozan had just 13 free throw attempts. Maintaining that defensive discipline is going to be key for the Bucks come Sunday.
DeRozan just put together one of the best seasons of his career, and he did so in large part because he got to the line at an elite level. His 7.8 free throw attempts per game were fifth in the league, and he shot 87.7 percent which was good for 12th in the league. The Bulls are going to need a big-time series from DeRozan if they want to pull an upset, but it's going to be hard for him to put the team on his back if he can't regularly get easy points at the line.