Bulls crush Hornets, sweep season series vs. Charlotte
Nikola Vucevic scored 29 points and grabbed 14 boards in the victory.
Remind Me Later •
Nikola Vucevic had a big night to the tune of 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting and 14 rebounds as the Bulls cruised past the Charlotte Hornets 120-99. Zach LaVine, who played after missing 11 games due to NBA health and safety protocols, scored 13 points in 27 minutes. Chicago shot 50.5% from the field in the win. The Bulls (27-39) will look for a second-straight win as they face the Boston Celtics (35-31) at the United Center on Friday night.
So how does that trademark law work again? Coby, Zach, P-Will, Theis and Vooch, the guys who dropped that overwhelming offense and dominating defense on the Charlotte Hornets Thursday for a 120-99 victory that left Charlotte players admiring the Bulls toughness, physicality and talent.
Are we talking The Fab Five?
"Very encouraged with how we played tonight," said Nikola Vucevic with 29 points and 14 rebounds after missing two games with a hip problem. "We obviously started the game very well. I think that can be a very good lineup for us."
What? Someone else used that description before? Though for at least one night the starting five Bulls coach Billy Donovan used for the first time—and perhaps finally in a bit of a glimpse at the Bulls future—dominated a pending playoff team, was tougher, smarter, harder working and more talented.
And leaving the building with a smile for a change with the return of both Vucevic and Zach LaVine, the latter after an 11-game absence with Covid.
"It gives a lot of options offensively and it gives us a lot of size, athleticism and quickness, apart from me on the defensive end," Vucevic deadpanned. "Yeah, I think it's a good lineup for us, for sure."
Though it's longevity, at least for this season, remains in question as the Bulls tragic number for elimination from the playoffs play-in competition dropped to three with wins by Washington and Indiana.
The Bulls at 27-39 with the Toronto Raptors' overtime loss to the Wizards slipped back into 11th place, three and a half games behind Washington and four games behind lately dysfunctional Indiana. Any combination of three Bulls losses and wins each by Indiana and Washington puts the Bulls back in wait 'til next season mode. The number is two with Charlotte.
"We're going to have to go out there and fight for our lives every game to give us a chance," said LaVine, who in shorter shifts had 13 points and three of eight threes.
Overall, the Bulls not surprisingly were sharper offensively with, you know, their two best offensive players. They converted 18 of 37 threes, shooting 51 percent overall with 33 assists and a dominating 50-36 inside advantage.
"As long as we go out there with that mentality, I think we'll be all right," said LaVine hopefully.
It will take more than that, namely some kind of collapse by the Wizards and Pacers. And even then requiring the Bulls to win at least four of their last six starting Friday in the ESPN nationally televised game against the Boston Celtics. It also will be the first game the public will be allowed into a Bulls game in the United Center, set at approximately 25 percent capacity because of virus restrictions. The Bulls are one of the last teams in the NBA allowed to admit a scattering of fans to a home game.
And unless something drastic occurs in the next 10 days, it will mark just one of four such games for the 2020-21 season.
But Thursday's performance perhaps was a harbinger of better things to come with a sinewy and skillful core beginning to materialize.
All five Bulls starters scored in double figures with Garrett Temple and Lauri Markkanen off the bench contributing 12 and 10 points, respectively. Thad Young added seven points, eight assists and six rebounds plus a highlight late third quarter lob dunk on a LaVine pass. The Hornets were the ones ducking and getting out of the way, for a change, and it was the Bulls who were intimidating.
C'mon fabulous, right?
"Overall, their physicality," said Hornets coach James Borrego with an observation the Bulls often offer to others. "LaVine's a problem. Their size, Vucevic, (Daniel) Theis, Young, (Patrick) Williams, Markkanen. They've got a seven-footer at their three spot."
Markkanen also had seven rebounds and two blocks, this time appearing in a cameo as one of the tougher guys.
"They were just more physical, way more physical than us from the get-go, from the jump," said Hornets guard Malik Monk. "I felt like they had the ups on us from an energy, physicality (standpoint) and everything like that. Props to them; they whooped us."
Sounds nice to hear from an opponent for a change, and not a bad one as the Hornets remain eighth at 32-34. Though which also makes this season more difficult to accept. You mean that team, whom the Bull swept and by an average winning margin of 17 points, are at least assured of the play-in tournament already?
As they say in golf to identity a player who excels at a certain course—or its original use in England to determine the appropriate person for a particular job—sometimes matchups favor one team. It seems to for the Bulls against the scrappy Hornets who don't run as much team offense and shoot a lot of threes off the dribble. It's probably different when Gordon Hayward returns, but the Bulls have had their injury stories as well.
Perhaps they're over now, albeit late, though the difference is palpable.
"When you have full capacity, sometimes you feel like you can go out and do anything," said Young, who seemed to as well with the rare lob dunk.
Young in the post game TV interview even revealed a bit of the trash talk that led to his high wire performance. Without a net.
It seems Monk was taunting Young in playful conversation just before about not having that sort of lift in his trick bag any longer at 32. "I said, ‘Look man, I'm from the South; everyone from the South is athletic.'
So Young finished a trapeze act over Jalen McDaniels, hanging on the rim and hollering for a quarter ending three-point play and 96-74 Bulls lead. Young then patted Monk, who winced as Young slammed the ball, on his rear to remind the kid he's still Young.
"When you don't have your scorers, it's hard to have that consistency and level of play," Young added. "Now we're going back to the regular groups we've been playing with."
For the first time. Back to the future?
White had 14 points and six assists, and like LaVine three of eight on threes as the uncanny shooting Vucevic made five of seven. White was coming off the bench following an inconsistent start to the season when Vucevic was acquired in March. Then when LaVine exited for his Covid issues, White returned to start. With LaVine back Thursday, White remained a starter since he'd been playing well and averaging 18.4 points the previous 11 games.
His presence in the backcourt with LaVine and Vucevic both inside and able to extend the court with his shooting gave the Bulls the offense to take the pressure off their small margin for error, as Donovan often says. So no surprise, the Bulls started with a 20-9 lead less than six minutes into the game. It was crucial that threesome was augmented by defensive oriented Theis and Williams, the latter with a more engaged showing. He even showed some emotion after opening the game with a driving three-point play.
Williams had 11 points and nine rebounds, but also led in plus/minus even as he only attempted one shot after the first quarter. But he acted more involved on offense than usual.
Williams often is likened (hopefully) to Kawhi Leonard. But when he flashes those physical moves and that one hand push shot, he reminds me more of 6-8 Indiana Hall of Famer and prime ABA star George McGinnis. McGinnis was an elite scorer and combination small/power forward whom Williams might be better to emulate. Williams appears to have the attributes. He just needs the attitude.
The Bulls as a team had that this time in a game in which they were the ones who acted like they could pull away anytime, sort of Secretariat around the turn.
"Obviously, we're a much different team with Zach out there," said Vucevic. "You know it's gonna take him some time to get back rhythm and be himself, but just to have him out there he's obviously a big threat on the offensive end. He opens up so much for everybody else. It's just a great boost mentally for everybody, too. I thought tonight we played a great game. Hopefully, we continue that way."
With that 20-9 start that took the buzz out of the Hornets, the Bulls led 34-24 after one quarter. Thirty-four points and 20 in five-plus minutes. That is fabulous. The Hornets finally made some threes in the second quarter to get within three points before Markkanen closed the half with his three for a 59-53 Bulls lead. But it felt more like gnats at a picnic. Time to swat them away.
The bigger, more physical Bulls (copyright that!) closed the driving lanes, were plus-11 on the boards with 15 offensive rebounds and felt like the other guys were getting out of the way.
"We're a lot bigger," said LaVine. "We can switch a lot of different things. We're playing those two guys in the frontcourt; it gives us more options, some high-low stuff, some double screens for the guards. Our rebounding felt like it was a lot better. It just felt like we were a bigger team."
Changes are to come this summer no matter how and when this season ends. Perhaps White isn't the point guard of the future, but maybe he is if Williams becomes more of the facilitator as advertised. There remain myriad possibilities, though LaVine, Vucevic, Williams and White look like a potentially forcible core. Or corps. No longer a corpse.
Vucevic added 10 more points in the third quarter to match his 10 in the second, the Bulls quickly reestablishing a double digit lead after halftime and then by 20 before clearing the floor for Thad's dance of destruction.
"I thought we had good bounce and good pop," said Donovan.
LaVine kicked the Bulls lead up to 101-77 with five quick points to start the fourth quarter and show the Hornets' absentee owner what shooting guard scoring really looks like.
"It just felt good to play again, man," LaVine said.
And especially to see the Bulls again play like that. Portent, perhaps?
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