Bulls 120, Bucks 66 (Chicago wins series, 4-1)

Murphy’s Law seems to apply exclusively to the Chicago Bulls around this time of year. So when the Bucks stormed back to avoid a sweep and take consecutive games—a last-second stunner followed by a thoroughly convincing win at the United Center—questions inevitably crept into our heads. Would the Bucks become the first team in NBA history to win a seven-game series after falling down 3-0? Was the budding core of Middleton, Giannis and MCW beginning to actually cause serious problems in this year’s playoffs? Was the East’s lost dynasty seeing its window slam shut?

The Bulls answered our questions with a passionate, emphatic “FOH” Thursday night. They beat the Bucks 120-66. This was the final score of an important basketball game.

All five Bulls starters scored in double figures, topped by Mike Dunleavy’s 20 points on just seven shots. Zaza Pachulia led the Bucks with eight points, and Yes, those words in that order successfully describe a real thing that happened. The Bulls shot 50 percent from behind the arc; the Bucks were 33 percent from the field.

The Bulls lurched out to an 8-0 start and assisted on 11 of their 14 field goals. Aside from a rusty Derrick Rose, who missed his first five shots, the Bulls enjoyed perhaps their best offensive first quarter of the season. Aaron Brooks hit a 3 from the West Loop; Jimmy Butler threw home a twisting two-hand slam in traffic. After two straight losses in which the Bucks were able to trap the Bulls into their pressure-heavy half-court game, the Bulls leaked out in transition, zipped passes around the floor and took the air out of the Bradley Center within the first 10 minutes.

Then came the inevitable loss of composure. Carter-Williams caught a technical for elbowing Dunleavy. Antetokounmpo was ejected for a flagrant-2 after tackling Dunleavy into the stands during one of his four 3s. OJ Mayo left the bench during a timeout to charge at Jimmy Butler.

What did we learn Thursday night? We learned that there is indeed no mercy rule in the NBA. We learned that we won’t see a gaaaaame sevuuuuuhhhn. We learned that Tom Thibodeau is a chill dude when his team is up 50.

But this series will ultimately be remembered for three things: the emergence of Butler as a bona fide two-way star, the first playoff games Rose played in three years, and the nascent signs of what could be a powerhouse for years to come. Butler averaged 24.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals in more than 42 minutes a night during this opening round series. Rose was wildly inconsistent, but he offered a handful of moments that begged comparions to the 2010-11 season and almost single-handedly dragged the Bulls to that wild game 3 win. And the Bucks made just about every game close, and they’ll return next fall a year older and with Jabari Parker.

Now the Bulls will face off against the arbiter of their Murphy’s Law. LeBron James has knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs in three of the past five years.

—Steven Goldstein

Clippers 102, Spurs 96 (Series tied, 3-3)

Up until tonight, the fourth quarter had not been kind to the Los Angeles Clippers throughout their thrilling series with the Spurs. After Blake Griffin fumbled Game 2 away, and DeAndre Jordan’s basket interference prevented the Clippers from taking a lead with 4.9 seconds left in Game 5, the Clippers were poised to have another late game collapse in Game 6.

Instead they closed the game out strong, sending the series back to Los Angeles for a Game 7.

With 1 minute and 19 seconds left, a three-pointer by Marco Belinelli made it a 96-93 game. Kawhi Leonard subsequently got a good look from three with 40 seconds left, but missed. Chris Paul responded by hitting a gorgeous driving jumper with 21 seconds left. Belinelli responded by hitting another 3, but after Jamal Crawford hit two consecutive free throws to give the Clippers a 4-point lead with 10 seconds left, that was pretty much it.

“This team is tough, they’re mentally tough,” Doc Rivers said after the game.

The Clippers bounced back from a devastating loss in Game 5 thanks to more big performances from their Big Three. Chris Paul (19 points, 15 assists, 4 rebounds) was just insane, playing with a controlled fury, and coming up huge down the stretch with 7 points and 2 assists in the fourth quarter. Blake Griffin (26 points, 6 assists, 12 rebounds) didn’t run out of gas in the fourth, thanks to some great time management from Doc Rivers, who sat him down for a large stretch towards the end of the third quarter and into the final quarter. Griffin ended up with 21 shots, but helped control the boards and came up big in crunch time. DeAndre Jordan (15 points, 14 rebounds) battled Duncan and Splitter down low all game, and despite another bad (7-15) shooting night from the free throw, helped kill the Spurs with high screens for pick and rolls all night. The Clippers also got a huge performance from JJ Redick (19 points) who helped spread the floor and serve as an extra offensive weapon for a team that desperately needed scoring from outside of their Big Three.

The Clippers bench even got involved. Spencer Hawes proved that he does actually have a jersey underneath his warmups when he went in in the second quarter for 15 seconds. Crawford had one of his best games of the series, scoring 10 points and not being an enormous liability on defense. Glen Davis played for only 9 minutes, and badly injured his ankle early in the fourth quarter.

For the Spurs it was another game where everybody contributed, but a surprisingly lackluster game from Kawhi Leonard (12 points, 2 assists, 7 rebounds) on 3-15 shooting probably did them in. The Clippers were super aggressive on Leonard, trapping him early and preventing him from getting any open looks. It was a big game for the Spurs’ bench, with Boris Diaw (17 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) and Belinelli (23 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound) keeping the Spurs in it with great three-point shooting.

The Spurs went 12-28 from behind the arc and the Clippers were only 4-18, but that wasn’t enough for San Antonio to overcome huge games from Paul, Griffin and Jordan. The Clippers were 22-31 from the free throw line, and they hit key free throws down the stretch to seal the win.

So it all comes down to Saturday, when Game 7 tips off at 8 p.m. at Staples. Can Griffin, Paul and Jordan overcome the balanced Spurs attack and advance to the next round? We’ll find out, when the best first-round series in recent memory reaches its climax with what should be an incredible seventh game.

—Russell Simon

Image via Getty