The Milwaukee Bucks entered Game 3 of their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night without the services of All-Star winger Khris Middleton and, honestly, it made no difference. Milwaukee dominated Chicago from start to finish, with the Bucks eventually claiming a 111-81 victory at the United Center to take a 2-1 series lead.
Milwaukee saw five players complete the win after scoring 10 or more points with Grayson Allen leading with 22 points off the bench. Giannis Antetokounmpo played just 29 minutes but managed to finish the game with 18 points to go along with nine assists and seven rebounds. On the other side, Nikola Vucevic led Chicago with 19 points but it took him 17 shots to get to that point.
Here are four key points of the game:
1. Dollars lock in defensively
The Bucks have had some defensive issues this season, and they reappeared earlier this week in Game 2, as DeMar DeRozan escaped for 41 points and the Bulls shot nearly 50% from the field. They have a knack for being elite at that end of the field, though, and in Game 3 we saw what happens when they ramp up the intensity.
A few minutes into the first quarter. Jrue Holiday was paired with DeRozan, who tried to use a Nikola Vucevic screen. Holiday didn’t have that and snuck between DeRozan and Vucevic to blow that option. DeRozan then changed direction and tried to come back to the left, but Holiday was also all over the place and choked him out as he resumed his dribbling. As DeRozan tried to find room for a pass, Holiday fended off the ball and went coast to coast for a layup.
Plays like Holiday’s set the tone for the night, as the Bucks harassed the Bulls all over the floor, and did so flawlessly. Holiday and Wesley Matthews held DeRozan to 11 points on nine field goal attempts, and the Bulls shot 39.3% from the field as a team. There was nothing easy for the Bulls at any time, exemplified by the fact that they couldn’t even get to the free throw line. The Bulls’ 10 free throw attempts were their second-fewest in games this season.
2. No Middleton, no problem
Late in Game 2, Khris Middleton slipped on a wet spot on the floor of the Fiserv Forum and sprained the MCL. He’s now out for the rest of the series and likely the second round if the Bucks can get that far. To ensure Middleton has a chance to play again this season, they will need the supporting cast to step up like they did on Friday night.
Mike Budenholzer decided to go big and started Bobby Portis in place of Middleton. It turned out to be a smart move, as Portis scored eight points in the first five minutes to help the Bucks open up a big lead they would never let go. Portis, who missed most of Game 2 himself after taking an elbow in the eye and now plays with glasses, finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds in a terrific outing.
He wasn’t the only one who had a big night out. Grayson Allen, who is public enemy No. 1 in Chicago due to his flagrant foul early in the season on Alex Caruso, silenced the United Center crowd with a stellar shooting display. He knocked down five 3s en route to a playoff career-high 22 points and six rebounds.
The overall bench stats are skewed because there was so much lost time, so we’ll just focus on Portis, Allen and Pat Connaughton. These three, on whom we will rely the most in the absence of Middleton, have combined 51 points, 28 rebounds and 11 3-point shots. That’s probably the high end of what the Bucks can expect from them on any given night, but if they can get even 60-70% of that production, it will go a long way to covering Middleton.
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3. The Bucks regain control with championship-level performances
The Bucks didn’t look much like the defending champions in Games 1 and 2 at home. Even if you admit they missed a few open shots, the offense was a pain, they were extremely sloppy with the ball (36 turnovers combined in the first two games) and there were a few lapses on the defensive side – especially in Game 2.
Most still expect them to win the series, but with Middleton in street clothes, there were suddenly a lot more questions about how things would pan out. Not so much more, as the Bucks strolled through the United Center and snatched home-court advantage from the Bulls with a dominating performance at Championship level.
If you’re a Bucks fan, this was exactly the kind of show you were hoping to see. They didn’t just win Game 3, they handed the Bulls their worst home playoff loss in franchise history.
4. Special thanks to Luca Vildoza
In a move that likely went unnoticed by everyone outside of Milwaukee, the Bucks signed 26-year-old Argentine guard Luca Vildoza shortly before the end of the regular season. Friday night, with the game well in hand midway through the fourth quarter, he was finally able to make his NBA debut.
He took full advantage of it, putting on a show en route to three points, three assists and two steals in eight minutes of work. His NBA highlight reel is already well underway thanks to this acrobatic pass to Jordan Nwora.
And this dish in the back to Thanasis Antetokounmpo for the slam of the posters.
Vildoza is unlikely to play any significant minutes for the rest of the playoffs, but it was a cool cameo. He will be a player to watch next season.