The Milwaukee Bucks entered Game 3 of their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night without the services of All-Star wing Khris Middleton and, honestly, it made no difference. Milwaukee dominated Chicago from start to finish with the Bucks ultimately coming away with a 111-81 victory at the United Center to take a 2-1 series lead.
Milwaukee had five players finish the win having scored 10 points or more with Grayson Allen leading the charge with 22 points off the bench. Giannis Antetokounmpo only played 29 minutes but managed to finish the game with 18 points to go along with nine assists and seven rebounds. On the other side, Nikola Vucevic led Chicago with 19 points but it took him 17 shots to get to that point.
Here are four key takeaways from the game:
1. Bucks lock in defensively
The Bucks have had some issues on the defensive end this season, and they popped up again earlier this week in Game 2, as DeMar DeRozan got loose for 41 points and the Bulls shot nearly 50 percent from the field. They have the talent to be elite at that end of the floor, though, and in Game 3 we saw what happens when they turn up the intensity.
A few minutes into the first quarter. Jrue Holiday was matched up with DeRozan, who tried to use a screen from Nikola Vucevic. Holiday wasn’t having that and snuck in between DeRozan and Vucevic to blow that option up. DeRozan then changed direction and tried to go back left, but Holiday was all over that too and smothered him as he picked up his dribble. As DeRozan tried to find room for a pass, Holiday knocked the ball away and went coast to coast for a layup.
Plays like that from Holiday set the tone for the night, as the Bucks harassed the Bulls all over the floor, and did so without fouling. Holiday and Wesley Matthews held DeRozan to 11 points on nine field goal attempts, and the Bulls shot 39.3 percent from the field as a team. There was just nothing easy for the Bulls at any point, exemplified by the fact that they couldn’t even get to the free throw line. The Bulls’ 10 free throw attempts were their second-fewest in any game this season.
2. No Middleton, no problem
Late in Game 2, Khris Middleton slipped on a wet spot on the Fiserv Forum floor and sprained his MCL. He’s now out for the remainder of the series, and likely part of the second round if the Bucks can get that far. To make sure Middleton has a chance to play again this season, they’ll need the supporting cast to step up just like they did on Friday night.
Mike Budenholzer decided to go big and started Bobby Portis in Middleton’s place. That turned out to be a smart move, as Portis scored eight points in the first five minutes to help the Bucks open up a big lead that they would never relinquish. Portis, who missed most of Game 2 himself after taking an elbow to the eye and is now playing with goggles, finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds in a tremendous outing.
He wasn’t the only one who had a big night. Grayson Allen, who is public enemy No. 1 in Chicago due to his early-season flagrant foul on Alex Caruso, shut up the United Center crowd with a stellar shooting display. He knocked down five 3s en route to a playoff career-high 22 points and six rebounds.
The overall bench stats are skewed since there was so much garbage time, so we’ll just focus on Portis, Allen and Pat Connaughton. Those three, who are going to be relied upon the most in Middleton’s absence, combined for 51 points, 28 rebounds and 11 made 3-pointers. That’s probably the top-end of what the Bucks can expect from them on any given night, but if they can get even 60-70 percent of that production, it will go a long way towards covering for Middleton.
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3. Bucks regain control with championship-level performance
The Bucks didn’t look much like the defending champs in Games 1 and 2 at home. Even if you grant that they missed some open shots, the offense was a slog, they were extremely sloppy with the ball (36 combined turnovers in the first two games) and there were some lapses on the defensive end – especially in Game 2.
Most still expect them to win the series, but with Middleton in street clothes there were suddenly a lot more questions about how things would play out. Not so much anymore, as the Bucks strolled into the United Center and snatched homecourt advantage back from the Bulls with a dominant, championship-level performance.
If you’re a Bucks fan, this was exactly the kind of showing you were hoping to see. They didn’t just win Game 3, they handed the Bulls their worst home playoff loss in franchise history.
4. A special shootout to Luca Vildoza
In a move that likely went unnoticed by everyone outside of Milwaukee, the Bucks signed 26-year-old Argentine guard Luca Vildoza shortly before the end of the regular season. On Friday night, with the game well in hand by the middle of the fourth quarter, he finally got to make his NBA debut.
He took full advantage, putting on a show en route to three points, three assists and two steals in eight minutes of work. His NBA highlight reel is already off to a great start thanks to this acrobatic pass to Jordan Nwora.
And this behind-the-back dish to Thanasis Antetokounmpo for the poster slam.
Vildoza is unlikely to play any meaningful minutes for the rest of the playoffs, but this was a cool cameo. He’ll be a player to watch for next season.