If there was ever a game where the Chicago Bulls dearly missed the presence of one-time MVP Derrick Rose, it was Monday night when they hosted the Milwaukee Bucks in an early-season interdivisional matchup.
The Bucks appeared dead in the water, down 27 points with under three minutes remaining in the third quarter. What happened next in Milwaukee's 12th game of the regular season probably won't be well-documented, but it could very well be the turning point of its season.
Led by a unit composed solely of bench players—Beno Udrih, Doron Lamb, Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and Ekpe Udoh—the Bucks stormed back, tying the game after a miraculous 31-4 run and surviving a last-second miss by Rip Hamilton to defeat the Bulls 93-92.
Now, instead of the Bulls taking the Central Division lead away from the Bucks, Milwaukee opens up a 1.5 game lead after completing one of the craziest comebacks you'll ever see in the NBA.
Milwaukee's improbable victory is the result of several things, including Rose's absence, the Bucks' depth and head coach Scott Skiles tinkering with the lineup.
Earlier in the game, there were signs that showed the slumping Ilyasova was more comfortable coming off the bench after rookie John Henson started in his place.
There were also some encouraging signs from Henson, who was two games removed from a 17-point, 18-rebound effort at Miami. Hindered by some early foul trouble, the lanky Henson still managed 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting in 15 minutes, but he didn't factor into the epic Milwaukee comeback.
The idea of starting Henson is enlightening. Not only does it allow Ilyasova and Udoh to stay in their comfort zone coming off the bench, but Henson provides a spark right off the bat with his shot-blocking ability and knack for scoring around the basket.
Too often, Milwaukee's starting five goes through extended periods without scoring, as it features streaky shooters (Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings), a defensive-minded big (Samuel Dalembert) and, previously, a power forward with dwindling confidence (Ilyasova).
But how was the Bucks bench able to outscore the Bulls bench 56-10 and outplay their starters for the majority of the fourth quarter?
Skiles had little choice but to wave the white flag and empty the bench late in the third quarter with a 27-point deficit to make up in just over 14 minutes. Conceivably, the Bucks' 6-2 start was erased, their division lead was gone and their bandwagon was emptying.
But the NBA can be pretty wacky sometimes.
Two nights after losing at home to Chicago, Milwaukee looked like a completely different team in the final 15 minutes Monday night, getting on the offensive glass, matching the Bulls in free-throw attempts and benefiting on defense from playing a taller backcourt.
On Friday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the ball didn't bounce Milwaukee's way, and Hamilton killed the smaller Ellis by shooting right over him.
On Monday, Hamilton still got his, but not in the fourth quarter. The rookie Lamb—aided by the length of Udoh—bothered Rip down the stretch, including on the game's final shot.
Fans may continue to sneeze at the notion of the Bucks winning the Central Division, but the Bulls and Indiana Pacers are both missing their franchise player for an extended period of time.
Chicago was able to take care of business in Milwaukee, and it was well on its way to accomplishing the same Monday night, but with Rose sidelined, there wasn't anyone who could step up and stop the bleeding as the Bucks went on their incredulous run.
Hamilton and Boozer were able to put the ball through every now and then, but the Bucks stayed patient, waited for good looks at the basket and created more chances by corralling offensive rebounds.
The Bucks completely outhustled the Bulls in the final quarter, largely due to how fresh Milwaukee's players were. The exhaustion of Chicago's starters was evident, as they were forced into a combined 199 minutes.
The Bulls are still an excellent defensive team, but without any quality options off the bench to spell their starters, fatigue sets in, and finishing games becomes difficult, especially without the star power of Rose.
Depth is important, and it's something the Bulls lack without a healthy Derrick Rose. The Bucks may not match Chicago on defense, but added depth makes up for that deficit, and that was displayed in full force Monday night.
Milwaukee can't expect to ride this formula to victory every game. It needs more consistent play from Ellis and a healthy Jennings, who sprained his ankle against Chicago Friday night and clearly wasn't himself on Monday.
But should Skiles continue starting Henson moving forward, it creates even more depth for the Bucks. Ilyasova can join a group that is already the most efficient bench in the league, and if Lamb can continue to make himself a viable option, Skiles shouldn't hesitate to insert the rookie when Ellis refuses to exit "chuck mode."
If the Bucks go on to win the Central Division, refer to Nov. 26 as the day it all changed.
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