Bucks and their ‘instigators’ bully the Bulls as Giannis Antetokounmpo makes more history


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CHICAGO — Before Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks coach Doc Rivers offered a simple explanation when asked why Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t a larger part of NBA MVP conversations.

“I don’t even want to get into it, but there’s been guys that you get tired of voting for,” Rivers said. “Michael (Jordan) may be the poster child of that.

“And Giannis seems to be in that category; where you’re so good, everything you do is taken for granted. When you just look at his numbers, they’re incredible, and yet, you never hear his name. It’s unbelievable, but that’s a sign of respect more than disrespect in some ways.”

Not long after, in the building some refer to as The House That Jordan Built, Antetokounmpo quickly went to work trying to give credence to his coach’s theory. By the end of the night, Antetokounmpo had done something only three other players in NBA history had accomplished.

In Friday’s 113-97 win over the Bulls, Antetokounmpo put up 46 points (on 16-of-22 shooting), 16 rebounds and six assists. Only Wilt Chamberlain (three times), Bob McAdoo and Joel Embiid had ever put together a game in which they scored at least 45 points with a shooting percentage better than 70 percent, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished five assists.

While Antetokounmpo’s dominance as a scorer and rebounder stood out, his first highlight from Friday’s game came as a passer.

For years, as far back as his exclusive interview with The Athletic following the Bucks’ 2021 NBA championship run, Antetokounmpo has felt as though his passing sometimes gets underrated, but his nightly highlight passes this season, as well as a career-high 6.3 assists per game, seem to have brought attention to his ability as a high-level distributor.

“I’ve become a more willing passer this year because my teammates are pretty freaking good, but I think I always could pass,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “Coming into the league, that was my thing that separated me, but we didn’t have a lot of TV games, and a lot of people didn’t pay attention to Milwaukee.

“So, people see me do a pass now, it’s like, ‘Oh, he can pass!’ I’ve been passing. I’m the all-time assist leader in Milwaukee. ‘Oh, he can pass!’ Of course, I can pass.”

And while Antetokounmpo delivered that line postgame with a smile, it was the scowl the two-time NBA MVP wore for most of Friday’s game that Bulls defenders will remember from the Bucks’ (40-21) fifth-straight win out of the All-Star break.

The Bulls (28-32) tried Alex Caruso, an All-NBA-level perimeter defender, on Antetokounmpo throughout the night, but the seven-time All-NBA forward was simply too big for that matchup.

Because of his own quickness and skill on the perimeter, Caruso attempted to pick up Antetokounmpo farther up the floor in an effort to make the 7-footer uncomfortable. But Antetokounmpo’s handle is too good for that, and Caruso’s aggressive strategy just gave Antetokounmpo a longer runway with more open space to the rim.

When the Bulls opted to use bigger defenders, such as Andre Drummond, as the primary defender, Antetokounmpo used all of his skills to light up the scoreboard. Since the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo has made seven of his nine 3-point attempts, including this pull-up 3 from the left wing against Drummond early in the third quarter.

And then, Antetokounmpo took Drummond down to the block and used his quickness to beat the Bulls’ big man to the baseline before hammering home a dunk.

“(With) Giannis, it’s that thing we talked about: ‘Feeding the pig’, meaning, if you fall into a play that works — and we had the little angle action — stay with it,’” Rivers said postgame. “Why would you go away from something that’s (working)? Just keep running it and keep running it.”

When Antetokounmpo exited the game with 2:48 left in the third quarter, he had 38 points, and the Bucks led by 14 points, but the game was far from over. In fact, things were about to get a little out of control.

Shortly after entering the game for Antetokounmpo, Patrick Beverley picked up DeMar DeRozan with full-court pressure. For a full possession, Beverley got underneath DeRozan as the Bulls forward tried to back him down into position and bumped DeRozan off his spot. Beverley eventually poked the ball away from DeRozan twice, but Beverley’s physicality frustrated Bulls guard Ayo Dosunmu, who came over to set a screen on Beverley. On the screen, Dosunmu extended his arms, and Beverley drew an offensive foul when he fell to the floor.

DeRozan drew a delay of game warning after the play as he talked to officials about Beverley’s physicality. Four possessions later, Bobby Portis grabbed a contested defensive rebound, and when DeRozan bounced off Portis to the floor, the Bucks forward looked down at him before pushing the ball up the floor in transition.

DeRozan did not appreciate Portis’ behavior and sprinted after him to foul Portis and get in his face, but Portis did not engage. Instead, he made his way to the free-throw line, where Beverley met him with a high-five and a big smile, which seemed to infuriate the Bulls more.

“We have instigators, for sure,” Rivers admitted after the game. “But it’s only good if you can do that and you don’t get caught up into it. And I thought tonight was right on the edge, and then we backed off.”

The Bulls, however, did not want to move past the chippy nature of the end of the third quarter and continued pushing the issue in the fourth. Two minutes into the frame, Nikola Vučeviċ attempted to post up Portis on the left block, but Portis wedged himself under the Bulls center and wouldn’t budge. Eventually, Vučeviċ tried a hook shot but missed it.

Frustrated by not getting a foul call, Vučeviċ ran down for the defensive possession and hammered AJ Green with an intentional foul. Green popped right back up, but both Beverley and Portis ran up to Vučeviċ and then nearby officials to demand that the Bulls center be ejected for his hard foul.

After a lengthy review, officials ejected Vučeviċ, and then cooler heads prevailed, but the Bucks showed they were not willing to back down from anyone. They stood their ground and stood up for their teammates, while not getting whistled for fouls or hurting their team on the scoreboard. As Rivers mentioned, it was a tight-rope balancing act, but the Bucks pulled it off Friday.

When asked what it meant to have a team full of players who seemed willing to stand up for their teammates, Antetokounmpo offered a different version of the question.

“Bullies? (What does it mean to) be surrounded by bullies?” Antetokounmpo asked with a smile on his face before becoming more earnest.

“It feels good,” Antetokounmpo said. “Not to disrespect the game in any way, but I feel like I have a lot of passionate players. From Bobby, from Pat (Beverley), from Jae, from AJ, from Beasley, from Brook, from everybody. We have passion in us, and we want to win. And sometimes, we might shove and push or be more physical than usual, but it’s good to have a team like that. We’re kind of trying to change the narrative around here.”

From Antetokounmpo’s dominance to his teammates annoying opponents with their physicality, the Bucks showed the Bulls they are tough. And with a five-game winning streak and a four-game streak of holding opponents to under 100 points, the Bucks are trying to prove to the rest of the league that it isn’t just talk.

Everything the Bucks have tried to prove in their first five games out of the break will get put to the test after the Bucks take two days off this weekend. On Monday, the Bucks host the LA Clippers before embarking on a four-game Western Conference road trip featuring the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Sacramento Kings.

Taking a majority of those games will do far more to change their narrative than “bullying” the Bulls, but Friday’s performance was another step in the right direction.

(Top photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: David Banks / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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