Even 40 points from DeMar DeRozan wasn’t enough for the Chicago Bulls to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in their final meeting of the regular season.
But despite the 127-106 loss at the United Center, the news wasn’t all bad for the Bulls on Tuesday night. They clinched their first playoff berth since 2017 when the Orlando Magic upended the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier in the night.
Even as the Bulls struggle through a 7-13 slump since the All-Star break, DeRozan said cementing a playoff position offers fresh hope heading into the final three games of the regular season.
“It’s an opportunity. It’s a chance,” DeRozan said. “It would be different if we weren’t making it and we were talking about next year. To still have a chance, an opportunity to pick it up and use these next few games to get going in the right direction — that’s what it’s all about.
“As long as you’re playing good basketball at the right time with an opportunity still in front of you, anything could happen.”
After Zach LaVine was sidelined for the night for ongoing management of his left knee injury, DeRozan shouldered most of the production for the Bulls offense.
By the end of the third quarter, he had 40 points and had made all eight of the team’s free throws. His three-point play with 2:24 to go in the third cut the Bucks lead — which had been 21 points — to 10 at 86-76.
But DeRozan didn’t score in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, leading coach Billy Donovan to bench his star to rest his legs for Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics.
The loss capped a season sweep by the Bucks, who dominated the Bulls in their last two matchups, and it highlighted how impactful injuries might be in the playoffs for the Bulls, who fell stagnant on offense without LaVine.
Patrick Williams earned his first start since October in LaVine’s absence, finishing with a season-high 18 points. Coby White was the only other Bull to score in double digits, finishing with 13 points and shooting 3-for-7 from 3-point range.
Nikola Vučević offered a rare highlight for Bulls fans in the fourth quarter by drilling Bucks guard Grayson Allen with an elbow to the head and sending him crashing to the court. Allen earned the Bulls’ ire for fracturing Alex Caruso’s wrist in January.
Vučević avoided a flagrant foul on the play, which was whistled dead because of an offensive foul shortly before he made contact with Allen.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer advocated to referees for Vučević to receive a flagrant foul, and he criticized the play after the game. But Vučević said he didn’t realize Allen was the player he fouled until after the whistle blew, and he believed the play looked worse than he intended due to a shove from behind by Brook Lopez.
“It looked worse in the moment,” Vučević said. “When you look at the replay, it’s not even that bad. I don’t understand why I got a tech for it. My intention wasn’t payback or anything. Hopefully I get my money back on the tech.”
The Bulls (45-34) will spend their final three games battling the Toronto Raptors (46-33) for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They trail the Raptors by one game after Tuesday’s play.
Whether they’re the fifth or sixth seed, the playoffs will require the Bulls to do something they’ve accomplished only once all season — beat a top-four team in the East.
The Bulls are 1-19 against the top four teams in the East and the top three in the Western Conference. That lone win came back on Nov. 1 against the Celtics, whom the Bulls will face for the last time Wednesday.
Their record against top competitors leaves the Bulls with a shaky foundation for the playoffs, which will be an uphill battle without home-court advantage.
“You want to be going into this time of year playing well,” Donovan said. “Since the All-Star break, it’s been a really, really, really challenging schedule. But I do think this is good because it’s shining a light on what you have to do and where you’ve got to get to and I think that’s a positive.”
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