CHICAGO -- The news came down before Game 5: The Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love had been declared out for the East semifinals. Huge break for the Chicago Bulls, many said. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was even asked for a reaction in his pregame news conference. In the end, perhaps the question should actually have been posed to Jason Kidd, because his Milwaukee Bucks aren't conceding anything.
The on-court headlines only gradually unfolded during the Bucks' somewhat stunning 94-88 victory Monday on the Bulls' home floor. That's the way they do it in Milwaukee under Kidd. The approach is the same possession after possession -- play hard, help each other on defense, share the ball on offense. Heroes are slow to emerge because the Bucks aren't about creating heroes.
"We haven't changed anything," Kidd said. "Our whole thing is about playing hard. That is how we are built."
Chicago fans were antsy the entire contest, perhaps baffled over what was going awry. They had figured Monday was simply one final tuneup before their Bulls clashed with LeBron and the Cavaliers. But again, instead of worrying about the Bulls' future, the Bucks calmly went about collectively plying their trade. Consistency of approach. Consistency of message. No, it's not sexy, but it was enough to force one more game, one in which the Bucks have a chance to even a series they once trailed in 3-0.
"We're not playing for the people, we're playing for each other," Kidd said. "That's what it is all about. We play for each other, no one has put us in this position. So we just go out there and play our type of basketball."
Through the first four games of the series, the Bucks puzzled over how to slow down the onslaught of Bulls guards Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose. Butler came in as the fourth-leading playoff scorer of the first round at 28.3 points per game, while Rose was adding 21.5 points per contest, and together they'd hit half their attempts. And while Chicago struggled with turnovers against the Bucks' pressure defense, they'd largely made up for it with 48 3s in the four games.
All of that turned around in Game 5. The Bulls cut their turnovers to a manageable 13, but shot just 34.4 percent from the field and hit just 4 of 22 3s. Butler and Rose combined to shoot 10-for-41. Most tellingly, Butler and Rose each tried to impose their will late in the game as Chicago battled to mount a comeback. But with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams blocking shots at the basket and contesting on the perimeter, the Bulls' guards shot 4-for-16 in the final period.
"On defense, it was more of a team effort," Khris Middleton said. "We are not a one-on-one team. We just wanted to have ball pressure and help out when the guy needed help."
Leave it to the Bucks to make a head-turning, season-saving performance sound like just another day at the office. But that's the hive mentality that has fueled Milwaukee's turnaround season. And even though the leader of that hive is a future Hall of Famer, he acts like just another worker bee.
"You see there is no quit in this group," Kidd said. "You've seen that since day one. For the rest of the nation, they haven't. But that's who we are. Win or lose, we're going to play to the end."
While Carter-Williams, Middleton and Antetokounpo were frustrating the Bulls on defense, Carter-Williams and Middleton lit up their Chicago counterparts at the other end. Middleton got off to a quick start, scoring 15 points in the first 14 minutes of the game, and finished with 21.
But it was Carter-Williams who stole the show. He outplayed Rose decisively: 22 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and three blocks, while shooting 10-for-15. All of those hoops came off the dribble, as Carter-Williams was able to get into the paint again and again on side pick-and-roll schemes. Sometimes he scored, sometimes he kicked to the open shooter. Whenever Milwaukee's offense seemed to bog down, Carter-Williams was there to make a play.
"I was just trying to get in the lane and find the open guy," Carter-Williams said. "My eyes were up and looking for guys to pass to. I was being patient and that opened up the lane a little bit and I was able to score."
Following a 14-point first half, Carter-Williams went out of the game early in the second half after twisting his right ankle. The Bucks stretched out their lead with his replacement, Jerryd Bayless, on the floor while Carter-Williams stood at the end of the Milwaukee bench flexing his ankle to keep it loose. When he came back into the game, he was even more effective, adding rebounds and blocks to the scoring and passing mix he'd flashed to that point.
"Mike was able to come back and I thought he stayed aggressive," Kidd said. "He was able to finish in the paint and we talked about that."
Collectively, the Bucks have emerged as a highly adaptable team. In winning Game 4, the Bucks forced 28 Chicago turnovers and enjoyed a 47-13 edge in bench points. In Game 5, the Bulls forced more turnovers (17-13) and got more points off them (24-19). The Bucks' edge in bench points was only 25-20. And once again, Milwaukee didn't shoot particularly well -- 42 percent -- but in the end, it added up to a road win in a playoff game against a heavy favorite in an elimination game.
This time it was Carter-Williams' dribble penetration and an aggregate effort on the boards that made the difference. It was not only a contrast to their last performance, it was more like a Bulls-type game than what the Bucks typically do. Now, instead of surviving, the Bucks can now start thinking of winning. As in the series.
"We've got Game 6," Kidd said. "We didn't come down here just to win one game. We want to get better each time. We've said that. Some people look at it as house money, but you can only talk about the future.
"We don't understand the future. We've got to stay in the present. They've worked their tail off, and put themselves in this position to make a series."
One item in the Bucks' immediate future is fixed: Game 6 on Thursday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The past two games in Milwaukee were stunners -- Chicago's double-overtime win in Game 3, and the Bucks' final-buzzer victory in Game 4. Both games were played in front of a frenzied, blaring mix of fans from both teams. Now with a game that a few days ago figured to never be played, that intensity should rachet up that much more.
"I can't wait," Carter-Williams said. "I know Milwaukee is going to come out and be rowdy for us and cheer throughout the game. We are going to play as hard as we can. As long as they are bringing it, we will bring it."