After taking part in the Bulls’ morning shootaround Friday morning, heretofore hobbled power forward Carlos Boozer said he felt great. “Terrific,” even.
After missing the previous two games with a sore knee, Boozer played the way he said he felt in the Bulls’ 81-72 win over the Bucks on Friday night at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. In a foul-filled, low-wattage and sometimes sloppy contest, Boozer finished with game-highs of 19 points and 13 rebounds in just 31 minutes.
Afterward, coach Tom Thibodeau said he’d gladly take the win, which extended the Bulls’ winning streak to four games, no matter how ugly.
“You guys (media) are into the aesthetics,” Thibodeau said, “I’m into the wins. You have to win different ways.”
Milwaukee (7-28), owning the worst record in the NBA, came out strong to start the game. The Bucks played aggressive defense, jumping into passing lanes, forcing turnovers and taking an early 10-1 lead that forced a Bulls timeout with 8:04 remaining in the first quarter. But the Bucks’ energy soon became overzealous, and the fouls mounted quickly.
“We got down by a lot early, then we just picked up our intensity,” Boozer said after the game. “We started playing more inside-out, we got to line a lot, they fouled us a lot. We hit our free throws early.”
Milwaukee committed 20 fouls in the first half, its most in a half since Nov. 24, 2008. Those 20 fouls resulted in 28 first-half free throws for the Bulls, who converted 22 of them. Boozer was 7-of-8 from the line in the half, and forward Taj Gibson was 6-of-8. The Bucks shot just six free throws as a team in the half.
“We just kept attacking,” Boozer said. “Sometimes that’s the way the game is being called. (The referees) were calling it tight early, and we just tried to take advantage of it.”
So the Bulls pounded the ball inside all night, drawing 29 Milwaukee fouls. And exemplifying the Bulls’ physical dominance, Boozer was a force from the opening tip. He poured in nine points in the first quarter and led all scorers at halftime with 15, which was already more than the 14.7 points per game he was averaging coming into the game.
Boozer played like a man with something to prove. And maybe he was, perhaps even to the pocket of Bucks fans chanting “amnesty” every time he shot a free throw — which was often in the first half. Thanks to Milwaukee’s ill-advised pummeling, Boozer and Gibson punished the Bucks’ overzealous and undersized defense inside.
Gibson finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, while center Joakim Noah had eight points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
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Thibodeau said having Boozer back with his frontcourt mates was big for the Bulls.
“I thought he played very well for missing the time that he did,” Thibodeau said. “(Noah) battled all night, as he has been under the weather. Looking at his stat line, he nearly had a triple-double. They dug out of the hole in the second quarter, and I thought the energy carried over into the third quarter and got us the big lead.”
By the middle of the second quarter, all three of Milwaukee’s starting frontcourt players — center Larry Sanders, power forward Ersan Ilyasova and small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — had three personal fouls. Ilyasova, especially, was no match for Boozer physically in the paint.
The Bulls steadily crawled back, and after Mike Dunleavy hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give them their first lead, 35-32, Milwaukee called a timeout with 6:19 left in the second quarter. Bucks guard O.J. Mayo hit a buzzer-beating jumper to cut the Bulls’ lead to 47-45 at halftime, but that was as close as Milwaukee would get the rest of the way.
Milwaukee settled down on defense in the second half but still finished with 29 fouls, resulting in 39 free throws for Chicago, which made just 27 of them (69.2 percent). Still, the 39-to-12 advantage at the line, a minus-27 margin that was Milwaukee’s most lopsided of the season, was enough.
“We have to be smarter with our fouls,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “The difference in the free throws is the difference in a game. We have to be better. You put a team on a free-throw line that amount of times, and it’s that big of a difference free-throw-wise. You can’t expect good results at the end.”
The fouls forced key Bucks players to the bench, like Sanders, who fouled out with one point. The team with the NBA’s worst record endured polar-vortex-caliber cold shooting in the third quarter, when it shot just 33.8 percent and saw the Bulls extend their lead to 69-59.
Both teams played a sloppy fourth quarter — the Bucks outscored the Bulls, 13-12 — but the Bulls were able to prevail for the eighth straight time in Milwaukee. The Bulls (16-18), who were playing their second game since trading then-leading scorer Luol Deng to Cleveland on Tuesday, have now won seven of their past nine games overall.
Jimmy Butler went down injured in the third quarter with a thigh bruise, but he later returned. He finished with 10 points in 40 minutes.
After the game, Butler said his leg hurt but he would be fine.
“I’m always getting kneed. I’m always getting hurt,” Butler said. “The only thing about this season is that it’s a good one for injuries. I’m good. I have to be good for tomorrow night, no time for X-rays.”
Mike Dunleavy, who beat the Bucks with a banked-in, game-winning 3-pointer in the teams’ Dec. 13 meeting in Milwaukee, added 18 points, making all three of his 3-pointers. He said in the victorious visitors’ locker room afterward that he preferred the easy win.
The Bucks were led by Mayo, who scored 16 points off the bench. The Bucks’ three starting frontcourt players combined for 15 points and 16 rebounds.
Butler said he, like his coach, had no problem with an ugly win or a scant stat line.
“As long as we win, that is what this team is all about,” Butler said. “Nobody cares about stats and all of that. As long as you get a win in the win column, that is the best stat you can have as a team.”