Every time the Chicago Bulls needed a basket, DeMar DeRozan was there to play the hero just as he has all season long.
Game 2 of the first round series between the Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks was a fascinating game of runs and DeRozan’s timely efforts were enough for them to hold on for a 114-110 win that tied the series at 1-1.
It was DeRozan who gave them their first double-digit lead of the evening, 56-45, with five straight points late in the second period. That lead eventually swelled to 18 points in the third, but the defending champion Bucks rode the efforts of Giannis Antetokounmpo to pull within three in the dying seconds of that same quarter.
With their backs against the wall, DeRozan took over again and scored four straight points within 30 seconds to bring their advantage back up to seven heading into the fourth quarter.
In a moment of deja vu, the Bulls built on their 32-year-old veteran’s momentum to erect a 16-point lead over the next few plays. Chicago led, 96-80, with less than 10 minutes left to play before Milwaukee began to chip away once more. The early exit of the Bucks’ closer Khris Middleton was not enough to derail their rally and they found themselves down by only three, 112-109, with 56 seconds left in the contest after a three-point play from Brook Lopez.
The Bulls predictably went to DeRozan on the ensuing possession and he managed to get a clean midrange look that missed the mark. Alex Caruso, the silent hero of Chicago’s heartstopping victory, secured the offensive rebound and reset the offense.
This time around, DeRozan was swarmed and unable to get a clean shot off following a hard double team on their pick-and-roll attack. Sophomore forward Patrick Williams wound up taking a corner three for the Bulls that missed the mark, yet Nikola Vucevic managed to outmaneuver Antetokounmpo underneath and tap the rebound out to DeRozan at the top of the key.
The third time proved to be the charm for the five-time NBA All-Star on this possession.
An aggressive steal attempt by Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton gave DeRozan a clear path to the basket and he attacked with a full head of steam. Despite a challenge from the imposing Antetokounmpo, Chicago’s leading scorer completed an athletic lay-up that gave them a five-point lead with 18 seconds remaining.
Caruso drew a charge on Antetokounmpo on the ensuing possession and secured the crucial road win for the Bulls.
DeRozan bounced back from a dismal Game 1 to finish with a game-high 41 points on 16-of-31 field goal shooting, a perfect nine-of-nine from the free throw line, and no three-pointers. He also had seven rebounds, four assists, a steal, and two blocks to round out his impressive line.
Vucevic had his second consecutive strong game with 24 points and 13 rebounds while Zach LaVine added 20 points and three assists. Caruso scored only nine points though he was their main facilitator for the evening with 10 assists and played his usual top-tier defense. He was a team-high +16 and also had two steals and two blocks.
Chicago has now made this a series and the severity of Middleton’s injury will play a crucial role moving forward as it may tilt the odds in their favor. Many were quick to dismiss this Bulls team in the build-up to this first round match-up given the absence of Lonzo Ball and their tumble down the standings over the regular season’s last few months.
DeRozan’s ability to put this team on his shoulders and the fearlessness of this experienced group was widely overlooked. After it is all said and done, the Bucks may still wind up advancing to the second round, but it will clearly not be as easy as what was initially expected.
This Chicago team takes its cues from DeRozan and if he has proven anything this season, it is that he is as ravenous as ever for playoff success.