It's over for this year's Chicago Bulls. After an exciting start to the season, things cooled down considerably in the final quarter of their 21-22 campaign, ultimately ending ignominiously Wednesday night in Milwaukee, with three of the best Bulls—Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso—out of the game with injury. Chicago looked like a decently potent pest up against the defending champion Bucks in the first two games of the series, but what happened over the next three contests had the effect of rendering those two fleeting brightnesses into illusion. Milwaukee beat them by an average margin of 23 points after the Bulls tied the series at 1-1, and it no longer looked like a match between foes of the same weight class.
Totally gone was the thrilling whoosh of the Bulls' league-best point-of-attack defense, symbiotically attached to their dazzling open court offensive assaults on the rim; that version of the team hasn't been seen since sometime in December. They had, instead, become a mudcrawler hitched to the lapels of DeMar DeRozan, who dragged them from the basement to the red carpet more often than anyone should have to. Eventually, he couldn't, and the Bulls' morass of injuries and Covid absences accumulated enough to expose their roster's various flaws.
Ball covers up a decent amount of those when he's around, and not just with his all-important defense. As one of the sport's elite full-court passers, he generates a lot of extra offense for the more unskilled athletes at the end of the Bulls rotation, and in the half-court he is the hyper-willing three-point tosser they need—he was at 42 percent on more than seven attempts from beyond the arc per game, before going out for the season in January. His presence would've helped against the Bucks, especially given how badly the Bulls shot from three in the series (28 percent as a team), how often they would show a lack of conviction and devolve into mushy half-decisions given open looks, and how infrequently they could generally punish Milwaukee for camping all their muscly super-athletes in the paint and against DeRozan.
But even with Ball, the size and strength gap between Chicago and Milwaukee is extremely conspicuous, and it would've been just as much so against other prospective first-round opponents like the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat. Shooting, bulk, and experience will be important areas of address for the wing- and front-court-poor Bulls—an unusually guard-dense team—this summer. The dilemma facing the front office as they seek to solve this deficit is that the roster is low on value on its back-half, with the path to meaningful addition potentially restricted to what they might get back by sending out a core piece. Is Chicago willing to give up some of what it does well, and any of the people who currently define them, to beef up where they're sallow?
This is nothing like the concerns of the Bucks as they move forward from the wreckage of the Bulls. In their effort to win a second consecutive championship, the team knows exactly who they are, and lacks any significant weaknesses. The question, instead, is whether their insane strength can top that of the scorching Celtics, who they will meet in the second round. A similarly extra-large team with unusual defensive versatility, the Celtics took to the second half of the regular season with a machine-like game-to-game destructiveness that the Bucks are more than familiar with. Prior to their 20-21 championship, Milwaukee found a groove as a 60-plus victory team in the regular season, executing a simple but overwhelming style over and over again, with much of the team comfortably filling in the comfortable holes plowed by the berserker fulcrum that was Giannis Antetokounmpo, haunting the court on both ends as he entered his prime and won two straight MVP trophies.
For the past two seasons, Milwaukee has eased its pedal-foot more in the regular season, settling for the third seed instead of the first, and experimenting more through the dog days of winter and early spring, fine-tuning different half-court actions involving Giannis, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton for when teams inevitably guard the Bucks the way the Bucks guard everyone else: piling into the paint, taking away what their best player wants to do, and forcing others to make shots. In last year's title run, the Bucks obviously had enough answers in the halfcourt, but now they'll have to prove it all over again without Middleton, who often solved those problems himself. The Bucks' springy, lengthy pull-up maestro, often their go-to assassin in the clutch, will be out for the entirety of the second round with an MCL injury that occurred against Chicago. His seasoned feel in the pick and roll with Giannis and Holiday will be missed, and Boston will be glad that it's Bobby Portis, Grayson Allen, and Wes Matthews taking shots instead.
Once Middleton went out against Chicago, though, was also when the team kicked into a higher gear and became unbeatable. By injecting Portis into many of Middleton's minutes, their lineups became even huger than usual, and Milwaukee took bullyball to a level that would make your uncle who hasn't watched since the 1990s blush. The Bulls had no answer, but Boston will, with the two teams staring into a series—starting Sunday—that will be about as jumbo from position to position as any we've seen. Godzilla meets King Kong this weekend in Boston, and buildings will certainly fall. Like in last year's second-round bout against the healthier, more functional Brooklyn Nets (just clinically dispatched by the Celtics in their more dilipated form) the Bucks face the toughest trial in the Eastern Conference early, and whoever survives will see the Larry O'Brien grow quite a bit bigger in their eyes. Whether the winner of the series gets that far or not, they will have been victorious in a battle that we're likely to remember for years.