MILWAUKEE – When they made a flurry of moves at the 2021 trade deadline then again in the summer of that year to reshape the roster in hopes of bringing the franchise back to relevancy, they were thinking of moments like this.
While many teams in the NBA have become accustomed to making the playoffs, that has not been the case in Chicago since the end of the 2014-2015 season. The team only squeezed into one postseason since – 2016-2017 – and had missed the previous four seasons.
For most of that time, they floundered in mediocrity, which brought out the angst in a frustrated fanbase.
But that changed over the past six months as the team’s performance in the first half brought back pride in the Bulls that had been lacking since the end of the Derrick Rose era of the franchise. Yes, they struggled at the finish, but their 46-36 record was good enough for a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and the end of their five-year playoff drought.
Their postseason begins on Sunday as they open their first round series with the third seed and defending NBA champion Bucks at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee at 5:30 PM. Billy Donovan’s team enters the best-of-seven series as a heavy underdog after they struggled to an 8-17 record in the second half and were swept by the Bucks in four regular season games.
Yet Donovan hopes his team doesn’t dwell on the finish of their season but rather focuses on the fact that they can start fresh on Sunday.
“To mean, when the ball is thrown up in the air at 5:30 on Sunday, nobody’s thinking about that stuff. You’ve just got to go out there and play,” said Donovan of the team thinking about their struggles at the end of their regular season. “I think the respect level that we have for their team and the fact that they’re world champions and won an NBA championship and they’ve had significant deep runs in the playoffs and their team’s been together for a long time and have been battle-tested and have seen every situation imaginable.
“They’re really experienced. I hope our team has grown through their experiences playing against them, but we’ve obviously got to be better than were the times that we played them.”
Indeed the Bucks have made the playoffs the last six seasons and have won at least one series in their last three playoff appearances, including their first NBA title since 1971 last summer. They went 51-31 on the season and are looking for their first repeat championship in franchise history.
The Bulls, meanwhile, feature a roster in which a number of players are making the postseason for the first time.
“The experience that they have compared to ours, that’s one of the biggest challenges and obstacles that we’ll have to fight against,” said guard DeMar DeRozan. “With that there, you know that speaks volumes. A lot of guys on our team haven’t made the postseason yet, and the experience that they (Bucks) had last year of winning a championship goes a long way.”
If his team wants to go a long way after coming a long way to get back to relevancy in the NBA, they’ll need to play above their experience starting Sunday.