After starting 2013 with three consecutive victories, the Bulls (19-14) were flying high, though they also had revenge on their minds with the Bucks (18-16) in town Wednesday night at the United Center.
But after a solid first half of play, instead of avenging their November 27-point collapse, the Bulls were overwhelmed by hot-shooting Milwaukee, particularly point guard Brandon Jennings, and dropped a 104-96 contest.
All five starters scored in the early going, as the Bulls got off to an 11-2 start against their Central Division rivals. The hosts recent trend of unselfish, balanced offense and seizing transition opportunities continued, while defensively, they smothered the Bucks, playing under interim head coach Jim Boylan, a former Bulls assistant under Scott Skiles, the man he replaced in Milwaukee.
The visitors quickly faced a double-digit deficit, as they couldnt muster up a cohesive offensive flow, nor stop the tandem of Carlos Boozer (22 points, 11 rebounds) and Joakim Noah (eight points, 12 rebounds) on the interior, not to mention the combination of long-distance shooting and playmaking backup point guard Nate Robinson (19 points, six assists, five rebounds), filling in for injured starter Kirk Hinrich the veteran suffered an elbow injury in Mondays home win over Cleveland, giving him six separate injuries on the campaign brought to the table.
Led by Robinsons trio of three-pointers in as many attempts, the Bulls led, 33-23, after the opening period.
The Bulls second unit had been playing solid basketball as of late, but with rookie point guard Marquis Teague running the show, there was some slippage, which allowed Milwaukee to rapidly climb back into the game. The explosive backcourt tandem of Jennings (35 points, six assists, six rebounds, 5-for-10 three-point shooting) and Monta Ellis (14 points, five rebounds, five assists), along with veteran reserve guard Beno Udrih (10 points, four assists), propelled the Bucks, who narrowed the gap to make it a single-digit affair.
But behind the scoring of reserve Marco Belinelli and Boozer, who picked up right where he left off after being reinserted following his usual first-quarter rest, the Bulls gradually rebuilt their comfortable winning margin. Despite the play of their guests guards and versatile forward Ersan Ilyasova (13 points, six rebounds), the Bulls held a 57-50 advantage at the intermission.
After the break, Milwaukee, buoyed by Jennings scoring and the defense of league-leading shot-blocker Larry Sanders (12 rebounds, seven blocked shots), whittled away at the deficit they faced, eventually overtaking their hosts at the 7:20 mark of the third period, prompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to halt the proceedings. While the streaky Jennings point production and Sanders ability to protect the rim were factors in the visitors surge, the fact that the Bulls experienced one of their periodic scoring droughts was also significant.
Jennings shouldered the Bucks offensive burden, hitting four triples in the quarter after each of the last two, he stared down the Bulls bench and imitated Robinsons post-basket airplane celebration and as he caught fire en route to a 20-point period, Milwaukee acquired some breathing room.
Forwards Boozer and Luol Deng (18 points, five rebounds) sparked a furious late-quarter Bulls rally to minimize the separation, but headed into the final stanza, they still trailed the Bucks by a point, 81-80.
Milwaukee got the jump on the hosts at the outset of the fourth quarter, as Ellis and veteran reserve swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr. (16 points, 4-for-5 three-point shooting) led the way until the Bulls second unit fought its way back, closing the gap to a single point midway through the period.
The likes of Belinelli, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler were catalysts for the home team, which used an aggressive, scrambling defense to fuel the comeback attempt.
A close-knit affair heading into the stretch run, despite timely baskets from Jennings, Ilyasova and Dunleavy, who also lit it up from long range on the evening, the Bulls hung around, kept plugging away and with 1:50 remaining, it was a one-possession game, 100-96, in the Bucks favor, after Boozer split a pair of free throws.
But the hosts, facing a Milwaukee defense that leads the league in blocked shots they swatted 14 this evening couldnt get over the hump, as the inability to score late, coupled with a Jennings jumper with 24.6 seconds to go sealed the deal, giving the Bulls their first loss of 2013.