Vucevic, LaVine lead Bulls past Nets to end losing skid

The two All-Stars combined for 47 points as the Bulls cruised to a 115-107 win over Brooklyn.
by Sam Smith
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Nikola Vucevic had a double-double by halftime and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds as the Bulls cruised past the Brooklyn Nets 115-107 on Easter Sunday. Kyrie Irving led the Nets with 24 points, who were without James Harden and Kevin Durant. Zach LaVine added 25 points and Tomas Satoransky had perhaps his best game of the season, scoring 19 points and adding 11 assists. The Bulls (20-28) will look to build on the victory on the road when they face the Pacers (22-26).

Big, bad Brooklyn Nets, that's it? That's all you got? Well, actually the Nets have a lot more than Kyrie and the Buyouts whom the Bulls Sunday defeated 115-107.

It was a much needed and welcomed victory for the Bulls to end a six-game losing streak and the first since the trade for Nikola Vucevic, who had 22 points and 13 rebounds. But it also was perhaps a harbinger—I know, I know, heard it before, but, no really, this time they're serious—of much better things to come in what is becoming a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented in season surgery.

Are the Bulls finally a team rising from the dead?

Nikola Vucevic scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the win over the Nets.

It's not so much the Bulls are getting a heart transplant. But they appear to be discovering a new basketball soul, one that may have the staying power they've long been seeking.

"Stylistically, we've completely changed the way we played in a week's period," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "The ball is going through our frontcourt. I give the guys a lot of credit from the perspective they know the trade (three of whom had major roles in the victory) has made us more talented. It's made us bigger and it's made us more physical. They (players) also knew it was going to take a little time. Everybody has been disrupted by it. There's no getting around it. But I say disrupted and it's a positive thing from the standpoint of we have to reinvent ourselves of how we need to play.

"We're a lot different than what we were when the season started," Donovan admitted. "Vooch has a lot of length out there and physicality. So does Daniel (Theis). Lauri (Markkanen off the bench at small forward) is a really long guy. Troy (Brown Jr. closing the game for defense) is a wing player who's got length. The team is totally different, but I say that in a very positive way."

The answer will be in the record as the Bulls moved to 20-28 and still 10th in the Eastern Conference with the first win since the March 25 acquisitions highlighted by Vucevic. But it's in what the Bulls and Donovan are attempting that is so unique.

Gone is Billy's fleet of F-15s with Coby White and Zach on the run, Markkanen flying out to the perimeter for spacing and shooting, the pace and space game so popular and copied recently in the NBA. Instead it's the 747 jumbo with Vucevic, Thad Young and Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky, no one under 6-6 and lots of post play, interior passing, a slower game that may just catch some of those high fliers by surprise. Assuming the Bulls can make it there by May.

"We were getting better (after the trade)," said Satoransky, who had season highs of 19 points and 11 assists. "It was getting frustrating because we weren't able to win games, but I felt like last two games, especially Phoenix and Utah, we played really well defensively. It was more physicality, and then I'm glad that we kind of brought that also to the United Center.

Highlights from Chicago's 115-107 win over Brooklyn on Easter Sunday.

"There's times where we need to slow the game a little bit and try to find the best matchups and take advantage of those matchups that we have," said Satoransky. "So we kind of adjust our offense based on the players that we have right now."

Play to your talent, they always say, and the Bulls in a revolutionary way are doing that. It probably wasn't the plan, but when Vucevic and Theis surprisingly became available, the Bulls pounced.

OK, Billy, your turn.

"You go through a training camp and you put in a system, in particularly offensively, and you build it out and this happens one day and all of a sudden, bing, you're playing San Antonio on the road and you're down by 30 in the first half and you're like, ‘OK, how do we piece this together?' We've got to figure this out as a group," said Donovan. "I do feel like we're making progress and making some strides."

Sure, the Nets, now 34-16, were without Kevin Durant, James Harden and DeAndre Jordan (hey, the Bulls were without White with Covid protocols and Garrett Temple). But there were some other positive signs in addition to the Bulls mostly dominating the game, a 57-46 halftime lead, 89-72 after three and then pulling away late in the fourth after the Nets got within 102-95 with five minutes left.

Then Satoransky continued his hot shooting and clutch play with a three, Vucevic pulled up for a baseline jumper and LaVine added a three with 1:22 left that closed it. In between there were enough defensive plays with a Vucevic block and Brown from Trading Day with the closing defensive group.

Kyrie Irving led the Nets with 24 points and 15 assists and Jeff Green had 21 points. Buyouts Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge started and plodded around for a combined 21 points. Vucevic outrebounded both combined. The Bulls are the team with the big guys. Back away! Brown added six points and with seven out rebounded ever Nets player but Griffin, who had eight.

"I have to produce on the defensive side and bring that energy off the bench," said the 6-6 Brown "You see the talent. We have so many guys who can score. It's just about us figuring out the chemistry. It's really dope to see, just watching two All-Stars out there playing their game, watching their counters and their progressions and how they work and play together. Like I was telling GT (Temple) today, that pick and roll with Zach and Vooch is hard to stop and then you have Thad cutting and Lauri on the other side. There's so much talent on this team it's amazing."

Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic

LaVine and Vucevic high five during the Bulls' Easter Sunday victory.

Of course, Brown came from the Wizards. But the Bulls got double figures scoring from six players as LaVine led with 25 points and eight of 12 free throws as he and Vucevic began to demonstrate their partnership.

"I think Zach and I can become a very dangerous two-man punch in this league," said Vucevic. "That's what I'm looking forward to. All the guys (are) experienced. We're starting to build good chemistry with Daniel, guys trying to play unselfishly, trying to play to win and that's all you can ask for. I think it's gotten better each game. We've been pretty efficient out the post either scoring or playing out of it. So we just have to continue to work on it. Do those things over and over and we'll build that chemistry."

Patrick Williams had 11 points and Theis had 10 off the bench with a pair of threes. Young had 12 with five assists as the Bulls totaled 29 assists.

Which is another discovery. Perhaps Donovan's biggest wish this season, other than being allowed out of his room, was to see the Bulls commit fewer turnovers. He hadn't quite gotten to the bakery jokes, but there was an odor rising. Suddenly, the Bulls are a low turnover team, six against the Jazz and nine against the Nets.

Finally listening? They always were, but when you play fast with young players there's some natural recklessness built in that you're not about to change. So the roster changed with young guys out (Wendell Carter Jr., Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison) and young guys to the bench, White and Markkanen. And abracadabra, hocus pocus, bing, bang, shazaam, now it's a veteran, experienced team with two 30-year-olds starting with a 29 and a 26 along with rookie Williams.

The ball is going inside for Young and Vucevic to decide, Markkanen being forced into taking advantage of matchups with hardly anyone defending him taller than 5-7 and the pace slower. People drop things less often when they are taking their time.

"The ball is going through our big guys' hands," noted Donovan. "They've been pretty responsible in terms of making good decisions; that part of it was really good. I also thought we got a really good game out of Sato. He made big plays. I think the game has probably gotten slowed down for us and I think we've done a better job since the trade of taking care of the ball."

Coach Donovan spoke to the media following Chicago's Easter Sunday win.

But the Bulls have Zach and did get nine fast break points.

"We're not playing that fast like we used to," said Satoransky. "I still feel that we have an athletic team that we can take advantage of."

And those mismatches that Markkanen finally is getting to.

"I thought (Markkanen, eight points without a three) did a really nice job of going inside and he's more than capable of doing that," said Donovan. "He was physical with his post moves, too, which was encouraging to see. He wasn't just trying to shoot the ball over a smaller defender, but he's actually going to the rim and trying to finish at that basket. The more he can do that the better off it is. Thad is such a unique player where he gets these mismatches and gets the ball around the post; he's incredibly efficient down there. Lauri has maybe not done a lot of that throughout his career, but I think if he can develop that it's going to help us and it's going to help him."

It's the first day of the rest of their... Nah, just make it Game 49 Tuesday in Indiana. Let's see what they've got.

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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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