ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- If the Milwaukee Bucks know the odds, they aren’t acting like it. If they know that almost no one expected there to be a Game 6 at the Bradley Center, it’s nothing to them. Jason Kidd’s central message has been clear since last September: The Bucks just want to get better every day. It’s a vanilla mantra for a guy who was such a dynamic player, but it’s good enough to put his young Bucks in position to make history.
Milwaukee has a chance to even up its first-round series with the Chicago Bulls on Thursday after once trailing 3-0. That’s one way to look at it, and that’s the storyline you’ll hear most about leading up to the game.
But here's another perspective: Milwaukee was even with the Bulls with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter in Game 2. They led the Bulls by 18 points at one point in Game 3 and had two shots to win it before finally going down in double overtime. Maybe, just maybe, the Bulls are every bit as fortunate to be playing on Thursday as the Bucks.
“I think the momentum has shifted a little bit,” Michael Carter-Williams said. “We're still down, and if we lose we go home. So we’re still playing with our backs against the wall.”
To escape it, the Bucks will keep doing what they’ve been doing for almost eight months: focusing on the little things, on improvement, on playing with effort and energy. They all sound great on a self-help podcast, but such intangibles are often less important than things like scoring points. Yet that’s exactly the approach that has gotten Milwaukee, which had 26 more wins this regular season than the past one, this far.
"I think the momentum has shifted a little bit. We're still down, and if we lose we go home. So we're still playing with our backs against the wall." Michael Carter-Williams
“For us, we need to focus on the first possession,” Kidd said. “I understand that it's Game 6, that we have [an entire] game to play. But we have to focus on the game plan. We don't want everybody to talk about what we accomplished, or what we didn't accomplish. For us it's just to stay focused and stay hungry.”
You’ve seen the numbers all week. Teams have fallen behind 3-0 in an NBA playoff series 116 times. After the Portland Trail Blazers lost at Memphis on Wednesday, 115 of those teams eventually lost the series. The other team is Milwaukee. Only 13 of those teams have forced a Game 6 like the Bucks have. Only three of those have gone on to a Game 7. The odds don’t get much longer.
“We're not like ‘We want to be the first team to come back from 3-0,'" Carter-Williams said. “We wish we weren’t in this position. It is what it is. We're just taking it one game at a time. The only game that matters is tomorrow.”
In what might be a scary thought for Bulls fans, the Bucks have lasted this long in the series without really playing their best game. Milwaukee’s best shooting performance for the series was the 42.4 percent it hit in Game 5. Even on defense, where the Bucks have mostly shined, they haven't held down the Bulls’ shooters and forced a lot of turnovers in the same game.
For Milwaukee to approach its ceiling, there will need to be adjustments, and adjustments to the adjustments Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are sure to make.
“They are well coached,” Kidd said. “They are going to continue to make adjustments, not only game to game, but timeout to timeout. He's always going to have those guys in position to be successful. For us, it's just continue to play hard.”
One tweak the Bulls will likely make is to crowd the paint when Carter-Williams drives after he torched Chicago for 10 baskets there in Game 5, in addition to some nifty kickouts to open shooters.
“I thought they made adjustments last game to more hone in on the big shooters, myself and Ersan [Ilyasova],” Jared Dudley said. “That left the lane open. I thought Michael really had his best game probably for us as a Buck. I thought the reason why was that they made the adjustment and Michael was mostly one-on-one with Derrick Rose, trying to beat him to the basket.”
Chances are, those lanes are going to be clogged by Chicago big men in Game 6.
“I'm sure they're going to adjust,” Carter-Williams said. “As they make adjustments, I've just got to be aggressive. If I see a crowd in the paint, then I've got to make them pay by kicking it out to my teammates and having the confidence in them to knock down some big shots.”
And that’s where the series-long shooting percentages come in. The Bucks’ 42.9 effective field goal percentage is by far the lowest of any team in the first round. They’ve shot better in relation to league averages outside the arc than inside it, especially the past two games. Still, a hot night from the perimeter shooters should be crucial to combat what figures to be a packed-in Bulls defense.
“That's what we're going to have to do,” Dudley said. “They are going to play certain coverages, and it may be my night. It may be Khris Middleton. We have to be willing to see what is out on the floor and be unselfish enough to do not say 'This guy is going to have to make a play.'"
When asked about the possibility of a hot shooting night, Kidd said: “That would be helpful. That would be nice. But even if we shoot the ball well, we still have to play defense. We've got to rebound the ball and we still got to do the little things.”
While the Bucks may need to rev their perimeter game, the Bulls will seek to reverse a disastrous performance in the paint in Game 5. Guards Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler were a combined 4-for-24 in the lane, and the Bucks blocked 11 shots. While a repeat performance that extreme is unlikely, the Bulls will still have to combat a player who has emerged as an unsung hero for Milwaukee: backup big man John Henson.
“I would say that John Henson has been the most consistent player we've had,” Dudley said. “He's been our Joakim Noah. Tipping the ball, keeping it alive for extra possessions. If we didn't have John Henson, we would be home somewhere.
“He's a natural shot-blocker. Certain people have that gift. It doesn't seem like he takes up that much space because of his frame. But then he comes from the weak side with those arms, and it's like a shadow blocking your shot.”
Henson’s 10 blocks are tied for ninth on the playoff leaderboard. More telling, the Bulls have a 45.7 effective shooting percentage with Henson on the floor, versus 52.0 percent with him off, per NBA.com/Stats. Milwaukee has been 7.6 points per 48 minutes better this series with Henson on the floor.
“He's been unbelievable, on the defensive and offensive ends,” Carter-Williams said. “He's been a big spark off the bench. We're going to need his play. He's been great for us this series.”
Carter-Williams briefly left Game 5 with a twisted ankle, and both he and Kidd declared that all is well heading into Game 6. That means both teams will be at full strength heading into what promises to be a frenzied atmosphere at the Bradley Center.
“I was going to tweet out that the city has been buzzing,” Dudley said. “To be honest, I think for the most part that (fans) thought that this series was done. Once we got that road win, I think that there is a belief that this is a possibility."