The basics: Chicago (23-30) at Milwaukee (27-29).
The stakes: Believe it or not, despite a season full of underachievement and wacky drama, the Bulls are 10th in the Eastern Conference…a mere two and a half games behind the eighth-place Bucks (27-29). So winning this game would go a long way toward The Stampede to the Playoffs.
The season series: It’s currently tied at 1-1. The Bulls took a 108-95 home decision in their first game of the season as Derrick Rose had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 steals in his rookie debut. However, they lost 97-90 on December 3 in Milwaukee when Dan Gadzuric — who really should have “seldom-used center” tattooed on his butt cheeks — semi-erupted for 11 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. The four-game series will conclude on March 6 in Chicago.
The analysis: I won’t lie: The Bucks makes me nervous. Not that Milwaukee is The Destroyer of Worlds or anything: They’re currently two games below .500 (at 27-29) and missing their two best players: Michael Redd (torn ACL/MCL) and Andrew Bogut (stress fracture in his lower back). Luke Ridnour (broken thumb) is also out of action for what it’s worth. (Don’t laugh…Luke is the team leader in assists and free throw percentage.) Yet they’ve come out on top in five of their last seven games, a stretch that’s included wins over the Hawks, Rockets and Pistons. (Okay, on second thought maybe that win over the Pistons doesn’t count for much.)
So…how are are the Bucks doing it? Well, Charlie Villanueva, Ramon Sessions and Richard Jefferson have been playing like they’re all characters in NBA Jam who caught fire at the same time. (Random historical sidenote: Can you believe that Milwaukee’s NBA Jam duo back in the day was Brad Lohaus and Blue Edwards? Discuss.) Villanueva has scored 20 or more points 13 times since January 2nd. Sessions scored a career-high 44 points on February 7th against the Pistons, dished out 17 assists against the Pacers last week and almost had a triple-double last night (17 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists). And Richard Jefferson has been doing what he does best, namely scoring (20, 27, 16, 25, 32 and 29 points in his last six games).
In short: Those three dudes are gettin’ ‘er done.
The Bucks are also reasonably decent at keeping opposing teams from putting the ball in the basket — they’re currently ranked 12th in defensive efficiency — which makes sense for a Scott Skiles team. Speaking of which, this shapes up as a revenge game for Skiles. Not that he would ever admit it, of course. But the guy was fired on Christmas freaking eve. Now he’s stuck in the land of beer, cheeseheads and Laverne & Shirley. Not even a soulless robot like Hugh Jackman would forgive that. (Although all Jackman could do is clench his clammy mechanical fist in impotent cyborg rage.)
The Bulls aren’t very good on the road — they’re only 9-19 away from the United Center this season — but on the upside, the Bucks had to play a tough game in Detroit last night. Jefferson and Sessions both logged over 40 minutes of PT, which should wear them down a bit, particularly considering Milwaukee’s injury-shortened rotation. Meanwhile, the Bulls haven’t played since that painful home loss to the Heat last Thursday night (although Derrick Rose “competed” in the Rookie Challenge before putting in a tough 60-70 seconds worth of hard work in the Skills Challenge).
Chicago needs to take advantage of their fresh legs and push the ball at every opportunity. The Bulls have superior depth right now, and they’ve got to use it. Rose should run at Sessions all night long, because wearing Ramon out could handicap the Milwaukee’s offense. I’d also like to see Joakim and Tyrus pound the offensive glass. And, Vinny, for God’s sake, if the game comes down to a final possession, KEEP DERRICK ROSE IN THE GAME.
Random, slightly disturbing fact: The Bucks are averaging 119.3 points on 51.9 percent shooting in their last four home games.