CHICAGO – Maybe these Milwaukee Bucks are just too young to know any better.
Maybe the 3-0 deficit removed the fear factor and simply allowed them to play with a "Nothing to lose" attitude.
Then again, maybe this team is so vastly improved from last year’s 15-67 debacle that it’s simply better than anyone can believe.
Whatever the case, being a basketball fan in Milwaukee is suddenly the thing to be.
The Bucks’ 94-88 victory over the Chicago Bulls Monday night stunned a United Center crowd of 21,814 into silence by the end.
The victory sets up a Game 6 matchup Thursday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center with the Bucks having a chance to pull even if they can ride some home-court mojo.
How good were the Bucks on Monday?
They never trailed the heavily favored Bulls after O.J. Mayo’s three-pointer created a 42-42 tie with 4:12 left in the second quarter. The Bucks then took the lead for good at 46-44 on Michael Carter-Williams’ two free throws with 3:04 left in the second quarter.
In the second half, the Bucks built a nine-point lead, and the Bulls were never closer than three points over the final 19 and a half minutes.
It’s as if they don’t know everyone has already crowned the Bulls the winner of this series. In fact, the ESPN NBA account tweeted before the game that Cleveland’s Kevin Love would be out for the "Bulls series" with a shoulder injury.
With no respect forthcoming, the Bucks are playing like they have nothing to lose.
"Nothing to lose," said third-year center John Henson, who had 10 of his 14 rebounds in the fourth quarter. "I was saying this is like an NCAA Tournament game. You win or go home. There’s a different type of feel, and it was good to be out there playing for your life, playing for your season.
"We don’t have anything to do this summer, so we’re trying to stay here as long as we can."
You can bet the Bulls think they’ve overstayed their welcome. Throughout the second half, the United Center crowd kept expecting their Bulls to make a run and take control of the game.
"We just stayed with our defensive principles," guard Khris Middleton said. "We stuck to it and tried to make them take tough shots – long twos or contested threes. We did our job to try to keep our lead and prevent them going on a run."
A 5-0 run pulled the Bulls within 80-77 with 8:35 left and had the crowd roaring.
After a timeout, Carter-Williams beat Derrick Rose off the dribble for a layup that started a 6-0 run and made it 86-77.
The Bulls again answered, pulling with within 86-83 on Pau Gasol’s jumper with 4:45 left.
Again, Carter-Williams beat Rose off the dribble and banked in a short, five-footer to start a 6-1 run that made it 92-84. The youngest team in the playoffs simply wouldn’t buckle. And Carter-Williams was one of the biggest reasons why, posting 22 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
Middleton added 21 points. Meanwhile, Chicago’s starting guards of Rose and Jimmy Butler combined to go 10 of 41.
"Today he took the challenge," Bucks forward Jared Dudley said of Carter-Williams. "He won the matchup with D-Rose tonight, he pushed the ball, hit good shots, didn’t settle. MCW, for me, was player of the game."
While some – including Henson – talked as though the Bucks have nothing to lose, Kidd didn’t agree.
"We’re not playing for the people; we’re playing for each other," he said. "That is what it is all about. No one else has put us in this position. We just go out there and play our type of basketball. We’ve gotten better.
"These guys have a lot to lose. We have an opportunity to get better each time we go to work."
As they get better and better, they’re also having more and more fun. Middleton lived through the 15-67 nightmare last season.
"Just going through last year, you try to learn from it and try to make it better and go through the summer and just remember what happened," Middleton said. "To be in this position, it feels good. But you can’t be satisfied with it, so we’re going to just keep pushing and pushing."
Carter-Williams went through a similar nightmare with Philadelphia a year ago, as the 76ers finished 19-63, although he did win rookie of the year. The Sixers were struggling through another lost season when Carter-Williams found out he was traded to the Bucks at the all-star break.
"It’s very fun," Carter-Williams said. "This is my first playoffs, and we’re having a blast from where I’ve come from last year. They did a great job with the first half of the season putting themselves in a good spot, and I was blessed enough to be traded to a team that has a great shot of being in the playoffs. They’ve taught me a lot, and I’m very grateful to be in the playoffs."
Bucks fans are most likely grateful, too. From the depths of last season to what should be a rollicking fun time at the Bradley Center for Game 6, the rise is hard to gauge.
"It’s getting to the point where anything can happen," Henson said. "So we’ve got to stay focused, and if we can push it to a Game 7, it’ll be one game where anything can happen. So that’s what we’re preparing for."