MILWAUKEE – As the losses to the Bulls kept piling up on his homecourt over the past two seasons, Brandon Jennings would tell his Bucks teammates to tune out the crowd. Just don’t mind it. Chicago fans have marched into the Bradley Center whenever the Bulls are in town, thousands and thousands of them, for as long as Jennings can remember.
Even going back to Michael Jordan’s 1990s teams, the Bulls have always had a large contingent of fans take over here. Ask security guards around the arena, and they’ll say without hesitation that games get most hectic when playing host to the Bulls and their fans.
Saturday night transpired no differently, a sea of red permeating throughout the building and the Bulls snapping a three-game losing streak – the longest under Tom Thibodeau. Yes, their 93-86 win took Carlos Boozer dropping just his second 20-point, 15-rebound performance of 2012 and Hamilton scoring 22 points, his highest total since joining the team. And the Bulls’ 54-40 advantage on the glass was a return of the rigid rebounding team that has led the NBA in boards in two of the past three seasons.
An already disconcerting end further exacerbated with the Bulls up four points and 23 seconds left in the contest, when Jennings made a drive to the basket and injured his left ankle as he flipped up a shot. He rolled around in the left corner before crouching down, laying on the floor still. Soon, the Bucks’ training staff ran over, checked out Jennings’ ankle, and then Drew Gooden and Samuel Dalembert carried him off the court and into the locker room. Through it all, Jennings put no weight on his entire lower body.
No one surrounding the Bucks, however, was surprised when Jennings declared he was fine and will shake off the injury. He has been so durable in his three-plus NBA seasons – besides a freak injury, a broken foot, in 2010 – missing just 19 games. He admitted in a private moment in a nearly empty post-game locker room that he feared the worst, but his ankle didn’t fully roll, just a tweak.
Jennings will now spend time icing his ankle: Overnight, Sunday and parts of Monday. Nevertheless, he made clear he’ll play for sure on Monday at Chicago, the second game of this home-and-home series. Jennings set a serious tone from the tip and played an excellent game Saturday, going for 23 points, seven assists and five steals, carrying the offense with Monta Ellis missing 10-of-17 shots and Ersan Ilyasova again disappearing.
With the Indiana Pacers struggling early this season, Milwaukee and Chicago have emerged out of the Central Division. The Bulls have thoroughly handled matchups between the two teams, and with this victory they made it nine in a row over these Bucks going back to 2010-11 – including five straight on the Bucks’ homecourt. For the Bucks, these tilts don’t hold the same underdog environment as they did when Derrick Rose was healthy; they know they’re right there, that the Bulls are much more beatable.
This was the Bucks’ opportunity to push across a statement win, a chance to solidify their stature in the Central division. Yet the Bulls came and went, for now, and left Milwaukee players asking: Will the Central go through Chicago once again?
“They’ve been kicking our butts for the last nine times we’ve played them,” Jennings told RealGM late Saturday night. “It’s real tough.”
It was going to get even tougher had Jennings’ ankle broken, a scenario he feared. More than anyone, the Bucks couldn’t withstand losing their point guard who is off to the best all-around start of his career – averaging almost 18 points, 7.5 assists and 3.5 steals.
Jennings set aside the ice pack now as he started to get ready to leave his locker, but finally, the feeling he had held inside for so long burst forward: Yes, it is difficult watching our home crowd being overpowered by Bulls fans, and then having to go play a road game in front of even more.
“It’s really hard being that we’re the home team and there’s more Bulls fans here than ours,” Jennings said. “But I’m used to it now, so [I] just take it as two road games. Not a home-and-home.”
The Bulls clearly understood the importance of Saturday’s game, riding the starters all night. The backcourt of Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich played season-highs in minutes, 36 and 31, respectively. Hamilton, for his part, was aggressive and active from the outset, pouring in 11 points on 5-for-5 free throws in the first quarter. And the mostly jump-shooting Boozer made eight of his 10 shots in the paint.
For whatever reason, Thibodeau had been benching Hamilton in fourth quarters this season. He’s talked about limiting the veteran guard’s minutes to preserve his health, but Hamilton came into training camp in stellar shape to play and contribute, especially in crunch time. Yet when Hamilton was featured as much as many believed he’d be every game, the Bulls’ offense had that guy who can create his shot and get off a clean look against smaller players.
Still, given the preparation and adjustments, sweeping a home-and-home has always been tough. For the Bucks, Saturday’s loss gave them no choice but to clear it out of their minds and shift the focus toward Monday. They remain the division leaders at 6-5, ahead of the Bulls’ 6-6 mark.
Despite the Bulls’ dominance on the Bucks’ home floor over the past few years, Thibodeau claimed, “When we play them, these games could go either way. We’ve been fortunate to [win].”
In Jennings’ mind, however, this matchup has been far more one-sided, and he finally conceded: No more tuning out the crowd, because these home-and-homes truly are like two road games.