Post Up: Seeing Red

Jimmy Butler and the Bulls overcame a slow start to take a 2-0 series lead vs the Bucks.
by April 21, 2015

Bulls 91, Bucks 82 (Bulls lead 2-0)

Familiarity breeds contempt, and the most memorable playoff series often produce a villain. The Raptors don’t give a shit about Paul Pierce; Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey continue to fight vicariously through Chandler Parsons; Chris Paul is still playing basketball. But the Bucks? One of the NBA’s youngest and most likable upstarts wasn’t supposed to cause a problem. Nobody really wanted to dislike the Bucks as Giannis Antetokounmpo logged his first playoff minutes. Then John Henson knocked down Aaron Brooks in transition, stood over him and stared him down during the second quarter, leading to a scuffle at half court. Zaza Pachulia was ejected after getting tangled up with Nikola Mirotic. Fans threw the giveaway neon visors; villains were born.

The Bulls knocked off the Bucks 91-82 Monday to take a convincing 2-0 series lead. Jimmy Butler lead all scorers with 31 and exploded for 14 in the fourth quarter, while Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol added 19 and 16 rebounds, respectively. Khris Middleton again topped Bucks scorers with 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting.

While Game 1 played out more like a celebration of Derrick Rose’s valiance and a fringe contender making a statement, Game 2 felt like a tense, snaking playoff matchup between two teams that are slowly forging a local rivalry.

“It’s playoff basketball,” Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “A lot of it is will, determination, how bad do you want it. It’s sort of the nature of the business.”

Both teams stumbled out the gate, and two nights after the two combined for a 57-point first quarter, the Bulls lead the Bucks just 16-11 after the opening period. The Bucks deployed trap defense, heavy ball pressure and doubled the pick and roll early, and both teams shot under 30 percent from the field in the first. The Bulls were up 39-38 at halftime without a single point from Rose.

Things picked up offensively in the third once the Bucks started sagging on Rose, who put up consecutive 3s and 12 points in the quarter. But the game will be remembered mostly for its fourth quarter, which featured a frantic takeover by Butler. With seven minutes to play and the Bulls up four, Butler double-pumped to shake Middleton and skied to the rim for a two-handed dunk over Pachulia, who was also called for a foul as the United Center erupted. Butler struggled at the free throw line, connecting on just 8 of 14 tries, but his scoring outburst and inspired two-way play is what anchored the Bulls as they pulled away late. A shuffling Rose added a 19-foot dagger with under a minute to play.

“I was just being aggressive. Jo and Derrick were telling me to score, they were literally telling me to shoot and not pass up any shots,” Butler said. “I think I took a lot of bad shots that just happened to go in.”

The Bulls outrebounded the Bucks 64-48 and again flustered a punchless Bucks offense. Game 3 will be played Thursday in Milwaukee, which according to Noah has Butler squriming with anticipation.

“Jo thinks Milwaukee is my favorite city. I disagree with him,” Butler, a Marquette product, said.

“I never met someone so excited for a shootaround as Jimmy Butler in Milwaukee,” Noah interrupted while holding back a laugh.

With 56 points in the first two games of this series, Butler has every reason to be excited about that trip to Milwaukee.

—Steven Goldstein

Pelicans 87, Warriors 97 (Warriors lead 2-0)

New Orleans had a shot to steal this game, but couldn’t quite capitalize.

The Pelicans came out strong in the first quarter, snatching an 11-point lead while the Splash Bros started slow (by their ridiculous standards). It briefly seemed like New Orleans might actually control the game. But Golden State’s bench provided a major spark in the second period, and the Dubs went ahead by three before halftime. Golden State then seemed ready to put the game away a few different times in the second half, but the Pelicans managed to hang around.

Following a major momentum shift in the Warriors’ favor, the Pelicans somehow pulled to within one with six to play. From there, though, New Orleans’ offense simply shut down, Klay Thompson took over and the Warriors built a safe lead.

Thompson led the Dubs with 26 on 11/17 shooting. He was the go-to guy down the stretch, and showed ridiculous touch from all over the floor while sinking back-breaking buckets. Stephen Curry wasn’t his sharpest, but still finished with 22. Similarly, Draymond Green struggled with his shot (4/12), but tallied 14 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Leandro Barbosa added 13 big ones in 15 reserve minutes.

The Pelicans looked great for 42 minutes. Eric Gordon was hot from the wing, and finished with 23 points (5/10 from deep) in 39 minutes. Anthony Davis was amazing again, dropping in a cool 26 and 10. Just like in Game 1, New Orleans’ composure for most of the game was admirable. In crunch time, though, the team seemed to panic.

Possessions in the final few minutes included aimless drives to the hoop, inaccurate midair passes, bricked open jumpers and a traveling call. New Orleans was frustratingly incapable of slowing the pace, feeding Davis in the post and working for a good shot. The Warriors weren’t the assassins they usually are in crunch time, and an efficient final half-quarter by New Orleans really could have won them the game.

Still, it was a road game for the Pelicans (and an expected loss), and they’ll head back home with plenty of positives. Admittedly, it’s tough to imagine the Pelicans holding off the Warriors for four wins in the next five tries, but they’ve proved themselves worthy of a postseason spot; this hardly looks like an overmatched No. 8 seed taking on a dominant No. 1. In fact, it feels a little bit like the Lakers-Thunder series from 2010, when the upstart No. 8 Thunder lost Game 1 fairly easily, challenged in Game 2, protected home court in Games 3 and 4, got blown out on the road in Game 5 and juuuuusst caved in Game 6. I doubt this series goes to six, but New Orleans won’t fall quietly, either.

Davis will star in his first ever home playoff game on Thursday night.

—Leo Sepkowitz