Jun 20, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
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NextImg:Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo cast shadow over Bulls that comes down to ‘culture’

There was a moment of foreshadowing during the 2015 first-round playoff series between the Bulls and the Bucks. With under two minutes to play in the second quarter of Game 6 and the Bucks trailing by 30 points, Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy, the future Warriors general manager, went up for a three-pointer and was sent to the floor by Giannis Antetokounmpo, the future two-time NBA MVP, as the shot fell through the net.

The Bulls won the game and the series, but it was the last of their seven consecutive postseason appearances — and the beginning of a power shift between the two teams.

“Coach [Tom Thibodeau] was just masterful,” recalled Bucks first-year coach Adrian Griffin, who was a Bulls assistant at the time under Thibodeau, having previously been an assistant for the Bucks as well. “We had guys that played extremely hard.”

He was referring to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and a young Jimmy Butler.

“We fell short of our ultimate goal,” Griffin added. “But there was a lot of winning those five years [2010-2015] with the Bulls. So, a lot of special moments.”

Those moments have long since passed. In the seven-plus seasons since that 2015 postseason run, which ended with the Bulls losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the next round, the Bulls have made just two postseason appearances, falling to the Celtics in the first round in 2017 and the Bucks in the first round in 2022, followed by a losing effort in the Play-In Tournament this past spring.

Today, the Bulls are largely uncompetitive and, in the minds of some, irrelevant. The Bucks, on the other hand, are favored by a number of analysts to return to the NBA Finals. It would be the Bucks’ eighth straight postseason, a stretch that includes an NBA title in 2021.

“Culture is a big deal, when you establish a winning culture and have guys that buy into winning, sacrifice in their roles and sacrifice for the bigger picture,” said Bucks forward Bobby Portis Jr., a former Bull who made his way to Milwaukee three years ago after stints with the Wizards and Knicks. “Kudos to the guys who started it and have been here, Khris [Middleton] and Giannis. They started that culture, and guys followed suit.”

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are the only players left from that 2015 Bucks-Bulls series. The Bulls cleaned house over the next few seasons, starting with firing Thibodeau with two years left on his contract and a 255-139 record. The dysfunction continued with the hiring of Fred Hoiberg, the signing of an aging All-Star and NBA champion in Dwyane Wade and the 2017 draft-night trade of Butler, who at the time was already a three-time All-Star.

Now, guard Zach LaVine — one of the players acquired for Butler — is on his way out with just one postseason appearance to his credit, and the Bulls are bracing for what could be a total teardown.

On Thursday night, without LaVine or veteran forward DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls snapped a five-game skid and stole a game from the bigger and better Bucks, winning 120-113 in overtime. They also snapped Antetokounmpo’s streak of 13 wins against them from 2018 to 2022.

But don’t be fooled — the Bucks still have the Bulls’ number. And the reason goes back to what was being established eight years ago, when the Bulls were on their last leg.

“I don’t think [they] have established [that culture] over the last five or six years,” Portis said.