NBA Playoffs Preview: Bulls vs. Bucks

In a Central Division battle between an experienced Bulls squad and a resurgent Bucks team, who will come out on top?

Entering the 2014-15 season, the Bulls and Bucks' expectations could not have been much more different.

The Bulls added Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose, fresh off his injury, to a 48-win playoff team. It goes without saying they had NBA Finals hopes in mind.

The Bucks, on the other hand, earned the second overall overall pick in the draft following a miserable 15-win season. Even with new coach Jason Kidd, no one was even thinking of playoffs as a possibility for this squad.

After injury plagued seasons for both squads, these Central Division rivals face off in Round 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Can the Bulls start a deep run by taking out the Bucks? Or will Milwaukee pull off the upset and advance? Let's take a look.

Chicago Bulls (3)

Record: 50-32
nERD: 58.3
Championship Odds: 5.35%

Milwaukee Bucks (6)

Record: 41-41
nERD: 50.2
Championship Odds: 0.88%

Regular Season Series - Bulls 3, Bucks 1

Only 90 miles apart, Chicago and Milwaukee are natural rivals. On the court, however, it has been a one-sided affair. Over the past five seasons, Chicago holds a dominating 16-4 record over Milwaukee. This season, Chicago won the first three matchups, two at home and one in Milwaukee, by an average of 11 points per game. The Bulls even had a nine-game road winning streak and a six-game overall run until the final meeting of the season, when they fell to the Bucks 95-91.

In the fourth and final game of the series, the Bucks were able to pull out a close victory at home as they won the rebounding battle 48-40 and caused the Bulls to commit 20 turnovers. It also marked the first game that point guard of the future, Michael Carter-Williams, played against the Bulls in a Milwaukee uniform.

In all four games, the Bulls had a different starting lineup due to the multitude of injuries they sustained this year. In fact, the third matchup, on February 23, was the only game where the Bulls had all five regular starters play. It was also the most lopsided game in the series as the Bulls led by double-digits through out en route to an 87-71 victory.

How the Bulls Can Win

The recipe for how to beat the Bucks is already there. If you out rebound them and make your foul shots, you will be on the winning side more times than not. The Bucks commit the most fouls of any playoff team, 22.1 per game, and rank 24th in the NBA in overall rebounds, 42.1 per game. On the flip-side, these are two of the best aspects of Chicago's game. The Bulls not only take the fourth most free-throw attempts per game, 25.2, but also they make them at an amazing 78.3% clip.

The Bulls hit the glass, too, as they out-rebound their opponents 45.7 to 43.4 per game. In the Bulls' three wins over the Bucks this season, they held a 155-128 rebounding advantage. The Bulls also went to the line an average of 28.6 times per game, making them at a 79.0% rate. If those stats hold true in the postseason, the Bulls will have a big advantage.

With the emergence of Jimmy Butler (the sixth best player in the league, according to our power rankings) and the development of rookie Nikola Mirotic, in addition to Gasol and Rose, the Bulls now possess four players capable of going off and leading the Bulls in scoring. All four of them have scored 29 or more points in a game at multiple times this season.

Even with the Bucks' excellent defense, shutting down all four is an unenviable task.

Bulls Player to Watch - Derrick Rose

One of the biggest keys for the Bulls to win this postseason will be their health, primarily Derrick Rose's. In the 51 games Rose played this season, the Bulls have a 33-18 record. But in the in the 31 Rose has missed, they struggled to a 17-14 mark. Despite his own personal shooting struggles this year (a career-low 40% from the field), the Bulls have excelled on the offensive end of the floor with Rose running the show. With Rose playing, the Bulls have averaged 102.5 points per game and an Offensive Rating of 109.1. With the former MVP on the sidelines, the Bulls have struggled to only 98.1 points per game.

The playoff experience of Rose can not be underestimated either. While no one expects Rose to return to his pre-knee injury ways, Rose always seems to play big in the spotlight and nothing is brighter than the NBA playoffs. In 29 career postseason games, Rose is averaging 25.1 points and 7.1 assists while carrying a 104 Offensive Rating.

How the Bucks Can Win

For the Bucks to pull off the upset over Chicago, they need to focus on the strength of their game -- defense -- and, in particular, causing turnovers.

While Chicago is middle of the pack in committing turnovers, Milwaukee excels at applying pressure to opposing offenses. Since the All-Star break, the Bucks have caused a league-leading 18.0 turnovers per game. With three starters 6'10" or taller (Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova, and Giannis Antetokounmpo), the Bucks use their length to clog passing lanes and reach in for steals. Causing turnovers is also essential to their offensive game as well; they lead the NBA with nearly 20% of their points coming off of turnovers.

The third best defense in the NBA in terms of efficiency with a 102.2 Defensive Rating, the Bucks live and die on the defensive end of the floor. They rank fifth in the NBA in opposing field goal percentage, as they hold opponents to 43.7% shooting from the field. In the four games against Chicago, they limited the Bulls to 40.8% shooting. If the Bucks are going to be successful in this series, they will need to dominate on defense because they are the least efficient offense in the playoffs with a 102.7 Offensive Rating.

Bucks Player to Watch: Michael Carter-Williams

At the trade deadline, the Bucks made a curious deal as they shipped off scoring leader Brandon Knight. Since the move, their offense has stalled to the tune of only 94.9 points per game, a drop of 4.6 points per game. Not surprisingly, they have also gone 12-18 in the 30 games since. If the Bucks' offense is going to give their team any chance to win this postseason, it will rely heavily on the 23-year-old shoulders of Michael Carter-Williams.

In his time with the Bucks, Carter-Williams has averaged 14.1 points and 5.6 assists per game. In the Bucks' lone win over the Bulls this season, Carter-Williams shined, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 boards. Starting with that April 1 game against the Bulls, a switch has flipped for the young point guard. In his last eight games, MCW has averaged 16.9 points and 6.0 assists while shooting 51% from the field and posting a 108 Offensive Rating. Carter-Williams helped the Bucks finish strong: they went 5-3 while scoring 99.5 points per game.

The reigning NBA Rookie of the Year will be also getting his first taste of the postseason and the public spotlight in this series. How Carter-Williams responds can define his career for years to come.

Series Prediction

Over the past 10 seasons, the Bucks have struggled against Chicago and have won only 11 out of the last 40 meetings. The young up-and-coming Bucks of 2015 do not have the offensive fire-power to reverse the trend. The clash of two of the top 10 defenses in points allowed will leave the respective offenses struggling for points. The more dynamic Bulls' offense with their multiple weapons pose a better chance to emerge out of the opening round.

According to our Algorithms: Bulls are 67.99% favorites.

My Final Prediction: This series will be a defensive battle, but I believe the playoff experience of the Bulls pushes them through to the second round. Bulls in five.