Saturday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Bulls used sizable rebounding and free throw advantages to claim their ninth straight win over the Bucks. But Milwaukee held enough other statistical leads to make an optimist believe that Chicago’s dominance could be interrupted when the teams played again Monday.
As late as almost 33 minutes into the rematch in the Windy City, the Bucks were stinkier than elephant dung while the Bulls exhibited no signs in hangover in their return home from their annual circus trip. The moved with the grace of acrobats and seemingly were coasting to victory.
When Bucks coach Scott Skiles called on a group of understudies with his team trailing, 78-51, it seemed to be little more than a compulsory final act, perhaps an audition for more featured roles for some of the younger performers.
There is no truth to the rumor that the coach made the moves with the wave of a wand, but he did have the magic tough Monday, as the surprise quintet of Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Beno Udrih, Ekpe Udoh and Doron Lamb keyed a 31-4 run that ignited a 93-92 comeback win that turned the stunned Bulls (6-7) into clowns.
The Bulls’ Richard Hamilton led all scorers with 30 points, but it turned out he needed 32. Hamilton’s attempt at a game-winning jumper bounced off the rim in the closing seconds after he had been shadowed nicely by Lamb. The final stop completed a harrowing finish that saw Udrih uncharacteristically miss two free throws and Milwaukee fail to successfully inbound the ball.
In the end, nothing would stunt the excitement in the visitors’ locker room. The win was just Milwaukee’s (7-5) second in 14 tries at the United Center.
There were certainly plenty of good feelings to go around, but Ersan Ilyasova was likely the most satisfied Buck, having led the team with 18 points. Ilyasova came off the bench for the first time this season and responded with by far his best game, perhaps feeling a little of the weight of his $32 million contract removed. That makes him a pretty expensive substitute, but after how much more relaxed he looked, there would appear to be little incentive to return him to the starting five.
Though he was not out there at the finish, first-round pick John Henson performed adequately in Ilyasova’s former role. Henson displayed a similar energy level as he did in Wednesday’s brief star turn in Miami. His activity kept the game reasonably close for most of the first half, and he did enough against the Bulls to make his minutes less erratic.
Udoh was efficient offensively with 11 points and eight rebounds, and he outplayed fellow second unit big man Larry Sanders on this night. If Ilyasova’s renaissance as a reserve continues, Skiles ongoing minutes-juggling in the frontcourt goes with it. For those scoring at home, Samuel Dalembert returned to the starting lineup following his bizarre and unexplained one-game benching.
We’ve heard a lot about how depth would fuel the Bucks this season, and the 56-10 shellacking the bench put on Chicago’s once-robust reserve corps is proof positive. Someone else besides Drew Gooden will eventually fade from the rotation, especially when Luc Richard Mbah a Moute returns from his knee injury. But any coach would rather have too many serviceable parts than not enough. There won’t be nearly as many scoring lulls when the guards rest if both Dunleavy and Ilyasova can emerge as “super subs.”
The possible psychological effects of Monday’s stunner will start to become known quickly, as Milwaukee hosts the surprising Knicks Wednesday, who will be smarting from an overtime loss to Brooklyn Monday. New York is 9-4 and averaging 102.3 points per game, third in the NBA. It’s fair to consider the Knicks a step up from the Bulls at the moment, and the Bucks’ guards will have to play better for Milwaukee to win.
That said, even if they have a letdown, we now know a little bit more about what these Bucks are capable of. Halfway through a six-game litmus test, they stand at 1-2, but still in first in the Central. An unlikely group made that so, getting literally 15 minutes of fame in the process.
We probably won’t see them starring together much this season, but if in fact this was their big moment, they certainly left the fans clamoring for an encore.