Bulls cruise past Hornets behind Vucevic's big game

Nikola Vucevic had 30 points and 14 rebounds on perfect three-point shooting as the Bulls improved to 14-8 on the season.
by Sam Smith
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It was supposed to be a night of Lonzo and LaMelo. "Leading up to the game, it's always marked on the calendar since he came into the league: Who's the best Ball brother?" noted the elder son, the Bulls' Lonzo.

But in a 133-119 Bulls win Monday over the Charlotte Hornets, it was mostly Nikola Vucevic who had a ball.

That's because he had the ball and he finally once again saw the ball go through the basket often, the Bulls often serene big man turning absolutely sublime with 30 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks while making all six of his three point attempts, including the effective closer with about three minutes left.

If it was a relief to Vucevic, who was suffering through career lows in virtually every significant statistical category, it was a balm for the Bulls with the first true writ large appearance of their presumed Big Three with DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

The trio in the third quarter in mostly breaking open the game was as electric as they are eclectic, DeRozan with mid range jump shots, pumps, fakes and all sorts of moves you figure he's next for Dancing with the Stars, LaVine whirling around the court with the heat and fire that belied his morning fever that made his appearance uncertain and Vucevic popping and posting, threes outside and scores inside.

They combined to shoot 12 of 15 for 29 points, outscoring the Hornets in the quarter and staking the Bulls to a 23-point late third quarter lead. That was enough confidence, at least, to not crack when the Hornets stunned the Bulls with a 21-6 start to the fourth quarter, making it 110-106 Bulls.

Enter Vooch stage right to ease the fright.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan, as he did to open the game with a Vucevic score on the first play, set up Nikola for a score on a Lonzo assist. With Ball assisting on the next two Bulls baskets, the Bulls put a 13-2 sting on the Hornets. It was 126-112 Bulls with 2:59 left when Vucevic made his sixth three, stretching his arms welcoming wide as he stood a few moments in perhaps his own cathartic moment.

"I'm just happy for him personally," said Donovan. "It's been a tough go."

Including the coming and going with Vucevic coming to the Bulls in trade late last season to be the All-Star to accompany LaVine, and then entering this season as almost a fourth option with the acquisitions of DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. Heck, fellow free agent Alex Caruso was getting "MVP" chants in the United Center. That wasn't booing, they were saying, "Vooooch."

It really wasn't booing, though no one quite knew what to make of Vooch's Disappearing Shot, 27 percent on threes and not even 40 percent overall (and he was closest to the basket) the first 11 games. He did have a season best eight of 14 on Nov. 10. On Nov. 11, he went into Covid protocols to miss the next seven games. So to summarize, his shot was missing even though he got the shot (for Covid). And then was shot for pretty much the rest of the month.

Then it was three of nine and missing all his threes in the Saturday loss to Miami, and Donovan saying he had to do something to help Nikola be Vucevic again.

As it turned out, a small ball, fast game, which is not supposed to be Vucevic's salve seemed to solve what's been ailing Vucevic.

Nikola Vucevic celebrates a three-point make just before halftime.

Nikola Vucevic was a perfect 6-for-6 from downtown in the win over Charlotte.

"I just had to find my rhythm and work through some things to figure out my spots and positions and how to play with my new teammates and my role and everything," said Vucevic. "I thought I was getting my rhythm and then I got Covid and had to sit out. Tonight was a good game for me; it was good to make some shots and find my rhythm a little bit and hopefully I can continue to do that.

"I have confidence in my game," Vucevic reiterated. "I have been playing at a high level for a long time, so I knew it was going to come. I've been averaging 20 a game for however long, so I knew I could do it. It was just (taking) me some time to get comfortable with the way we play. I was the main guy in Orlando for years and the ball was always with me and I knew I was going to get my shots no matter how the game was going. This is different. We have more talent and more guys on the ball. So I just had to figure out my way and still find my spots and make sure I don't get in their way and also for them getting used to playing with a big man like me.

"But when you go through struggles, it's never easy," Vucevic acknowledged. "Especially when you feel like you are not helping your team. That was the biggest thing for me. It was a new team and we are trying to establish something and when you feel you are not helping as much as you should it bothers you and annoys you."

When Vucevic had been so accustomed to bothering and annoying the opposition.

He did so against Charlotte, and with plenty of help as DeRozan had 28 points, LaVine 25 and Lonzo Ball 16 and a team best eight assists. His brother LaMelo had 18 points and 13 assists, but shot just five of 15 while Lonzo was six of eight and four of five on threes.

So who won the matchup?

"We won the game," answered Vucevic. "That's all that matters, right?"

Tap to watch highlights from Chicago's 133-119 win over Charlotte on Monday night.

Indeed, as the Bulls at 14-8 moved back into second place in the Eastern Conference, a game behind Brooklyn. The Bulls are in Brooklyn Saturday for their second meeting of the season. The Bulls won 118-95 earlier this month in the United Center.

This also was a good win, the Hornets like the Bulls one of the early season surprise teams now with a 13-10 record. LaMelo has been piling up assists and notice, but Lonzo was the more influential Monday with his efficient play as part of the best the Bulls offense has looked this season.

The Bulls before a festive crowd at one time chanting "Lonzo's Better" with LaMelo shooting free throws had season highs in points, shooting at 59.6 percent and assists with 35.

This is what most thought this season's Bulls would look like with Vucevic and DeRozan joining LaVine. But the offense has often been a work in progress while a frenetic defense led by Lonzo and Alex Caruso, the latter who had 14 points and myriad petty annoyances for the Hornets, has been the team's paradigm.

Though the Hornets seemed to make a crucial strategic error Monday.

You don't box with Ali, you don't shoot with Curry, and you don't go small and run with these Bulls.

The Hornets are the league's highest scoring team, so they do this sort of thing. But it was Pamplona-like as the Hornets played into just what Donovan hopes. It was fast, transition play and plenty of ball movement. No time for setting up those zone defenses, which didn't bother the Bulls much this time.

LaMelo Ball accumulates so many assists because he is Charlotte's primary facilitator. The Bulls are cold, icy if you will with more of those hockey-like assists with the ball circulating like at a holiday singles party. It was that sort of atmosphere in the United Center with Balls' parents sitting courtside and dad LaVar wearing a baseball cap that read, "I told you so."

That Lonzo would help the Bulls this much?

"I think regardless of the game he's already proud of us," Lonzo said when asked about his father. "He's helped us as much as he can and got us to where we wanted to get to since we were kids; making it to the league and him seeing us on the court is enough for him.

"Obviously we're brothers and it's all love off the court, but on the court he's got a job he's got to do, I've got a job I've got to do. We're both big parts of our team," said Lonzo. "He came in and played as hard as he could. I came in and played as hard as I could. And we came out with the W….I'm still the big brother at the end of the day."

The Brothers Ball began the game matched against one another to the delight of the fans, especially when Lonzo made back to back threes and forced LaMelo into a turnover. It suddenly was 13-4 Bulls.

"Melo likes to get comfortable and dance with the ball a lot," Lonzo explained. "When he starts doing that he's really dangerous to guard. For me, just trying to make him get out of rhythm and that's what I tried to do tonight."

Lonzo Ball and his brother LaMelo Ball embrace after the game

Lonzo Ball and his brother LaMelo Ball embrace after their duel on Monday night at the United Center.

But Charlotte went small with P.J. Washington on Vucevic, and it seemed to work with a deluge of Charlotte threes and soon into a tie at 26. It was 31-30 Hornets after one quarter.

This is the issue for the Bulls playing Vucevic against so much evolving small ball in the NBA. He's not about to defend all those three-point shooters, and the Hornets are one of the leading practitioners. But can they stop him in the post? Vucevic has a versatile game as an adept passer and shooter, but to get him more involved Donovan worked in more post play, or at least shots from a variety of inside positions. It helped that the Hornets' fast play helped space the floor, also giving DeRozan room for his uncanny interior shooting.

"He's probably the best mid range player we have in today's game," admired Lonzo. "He's very efficient and continues to make tough shots."

Several of which kept the replay screens repeating. Hey, we've got to see that one again!

The Bulls second unit, though with Donovan blending in starters as usual, had some unproductive times to start the second quarter, and especially to begin that fourth quarter.

LaVine was a game time decision with an apparent cold or fever, though not Covid-related, and still flew through with several double pump driving dunks. With Charlotte still within 60-58 late in the second quarter, Caruso closing halves with the starters as he does had eight of his 11 second quarter points. And Vucevic squeezed in a long three at the closing half-time buzzer for a 69-58 Bulls lead.

Vucevic stood a bit in the shooting pose, holding three fingers aloft and pumping his fist. He was enjoying those days again.

"Obviously it's great for us," said Lonzo. "Vooch is a big part of this team. We're obviously going to need him moving forward. I think he'll have a lot more nights like this. I think he's still trying to find his rhythm with a new team; plus he had Covid and stuff. Getting him into the offense more and looking for him more; we did that tonight and he came through for us."

LaVine began that third quarter with a three, DeRozan a drive and then he found Ball for a three when Charlotte doubled. Vucevic made back to back threes, DeRozan again defied the Lords of the Spread Sheet, and merrily the Bulls went to a 102-79 lead and 104-85 after three quarters. DeRozan even earned some of Caruso's "MVP" love.

Then there was a scare, but the way these guys were playing nobody became too frightened. They really were having a Ball.

Got a question for Sam?

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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