Vucevic leads Bulls past Pacers for second-straight win
The Bulls center had a double-double by halftime for the second-straight game as well.
Remind Me Later •
Nikola Vucevic had 32 points, 17 rebounds, and five assists as the Bulls cruised by the Pacers 113-97 on Tuesday night. Zach LaVine added 19 points while Lauri Markkanen and Coby White had 15 points and 13 points off the bench, respectively. Caris LeVert led the Pacers with 20 points, who were without big man Domantas Sabonis. The Bulls (21-28) will look to continue their winning ways against the Raptors (20-31) in Tampa on Thursday.
I've got the title. Forget The Vucevic Rules.
32 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and four threes later Nikola Vucevic and the Bulls Tuesday had a 113-97 victory over the Indiana Pacers. And he's just starting to get acclimated.
Are you feeling the excitement of the 9/10 play-in game yet?
"Tonight, a lot of it kind of came together," said Vucevic following one of the best across-the-box score games in franchise history. "We just have to continue to build on it. It's getting better each game and that's the way we want it to go. This was definitely the best game so far for me, but also as far as the comfort level. Just getting a feel for everyone out there and them getting a feel for me and my sweet spots.
"Tonight was maybe the first night where I wasn't overthinking things," Vucevic noted, his sixth game with the Bulls. "At times when you come to a new team, a new system, new teammates, you kind of overthink things. You want to make sure you don't make any mistakes or step on anybody's toes. Tonight I was trying to be aggressive and play my game and my teammates were able to find me in a lot of open spots. The more we play together we'll get more comfortable."
Better than that?
Everyone sure seemed comfortable this time in Indianapolis in the "battle" of, at least for now, the ninth and 10th place teams in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 10th at 21-28. Indiana is just ahead at 22-27. If the season were to end now—and the Bulls have ambitions far beyond this—the Bulls and Pacers would play the first play-in game for the right to meet the loser of the seven/eight game and earn eighth in the East. But with the schedule finally breaking, the Bulls four games out of fifth place have greater aspirations.
They're finally not fantasizing with the presence of Vucevic, who is averaging 22.7 points and 11 rebounds in his six games with the Bulls. Though perhaps more significantly, Vucevic's presence—a welcome present from Orlando—has enabled the Bulls to become dominant in rebounding, second chance points and assists, using the entire court inside and outside with brawn and brains.
"Obviously, us in pick and roll is going to be deadly going forward," predicted Zach LaVine, who had 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists. "It helps me as a playmaker and it makes the reads easy. Either me or him is going to get a good play for the team. He had it going today. I think you (media) guys know me. I'm all about winning and trying to get this team to be better. So if that means me taking a lesser role some nights and my scoring goes down. I'm fine with that as long as we get a win.
"Even a game like this where my shot wasn't going as much," said LaVine, "you're not as pressed to have all the pressure on you to go out there and go try to save the game or even win the game. We can run a play, just dump it down to him and I know that we're gonna be OK. It's a relief. Obviously, teams in this league you need a one/two guy. You need multiple guys on teams, two big time players on a team at least. You see Brooklyn, they got like six. So you've got to go out there and match it."
The Bulls aren't quite there yet, and LaVine may have been exaggerating some about the Nets.
Though the Bulls third quarter when they seized the game to take a 23-point lead behind Vucevic doing everything but taping ankles showed how much Vucevic can add and what he means.
"He plays unselfishly," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "He plays the right way. He does a good job of reading post defense when he can kick the ball out and get guys good shots. When you've got a player of his level and his caliber that plays the right way, it becomes contagious. Vooch got a good mixture of mid-range jump shots, a mixture of threes and he got a mixture of post-ups. Every area of the floor was touched."
The Bulls once again benefitted from serendipitous absenteeism with both Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon out. The Bulls took a 62-49 halftime lead with a smothering defensive second quarter and then shortly after halftime Pacers center Myles Turner went out with an ankle injury. But it may not have mattered who was available in that third quarter the way Vucevic painted a masterpiece. In the paint and out.
It started with a pick and his roll from LaVine and then stepping out for a three. It quickly was 69-49 Bulls and after a brief interruption for a few misplays, LaVine passed to Vucevic for a 15 footer, Vucevic added another three, drove left for a score, made a baseline jumper, and then LaVine closed out the quarter for a 97-74 lead with a sledgehammer slam dunk on a Thad Young pass and a three.
As John Wooden might note, Vucevic was quick but he didn't hurry. He moves easily to spots, screens, pops out, rolls to the basket, finds cutters off the weak side, identifies mismatches. He settles in the post to open the perimeter and moves outside to create driving lanes. He's able to lead the band while playing lead violin. So beautifully that it's the opponents who'll cry.
"It just came from us playing pretty good ball, executing our plays, moving the ball, setting good screens, cutting," Vucevic said about his 14-point third quarter. "I was able to get a lot of good looks and knock them down. When you have guys who are unselfish and want to make each other better, good things will happen. We've only played six games together, so it's not going to be clicking right away. But tonight was our best showing and there were signs of how good we can be if we continue to improve. "Zach is a great player. He can score in many ways," Vucevic added. "He can facilitate. He does a lot of things on the court. I think at times he might be a little too unselfish and he can be a little more aggressive, which I've told him. The more him and I are able to grow and build that chemistry in a two-man game, the better it will be for the whole team. I think in this league when you have a two-man game like that with two guys who can score in different ways, it's very hard to guard. We continue to work on it, to build our chemistry."
Vucevic with the oxygen and LaVine the nitrogen and the Bulls may have found a formula to explode upon the league.
Among centers in franchise history only Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol have had games rivaling Vucevic's. And without shooting threes. It's really not something The Bulls have seen before.
Plus with their size even with Daniel Theis missing with a personal absence, the Bulls outrebounded Indiana 57-33 and led 24-6 in second chance points. Young had 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists. But the Bulls also got excellent reserve production with 15 points and six rebounds from Lauri Markkanen and 13 points and six assists from Coby White back from a Covid absence. Donovan acknowledged their Bulls career arcs and expectations may be changing, though both may finally be in the appropriate roles to help the team. Markkanen did have to leave after being kicked in the leg.
"They're probably not going to be featured guys; just calling it like it is," said Donovan. "But they're very important pieces to our team and we need them to play at a high level. That's not to say that we can't run ATOs (after time out plays) for them and we can't do different things to attack. But we're playing out of the post so much right now that everybody's going to have to play off each other from those positions on the floor where maybe it was a little bit different earlier for Coby and Lauri. I give those guys credit. They've been really good team guys. They're trying to do everything we're asking them to do to put ourselves in position to win. If we can get those two guys to play the way they both did tonight, that'd be great."
The Bulls did commit 21 turnovers, but Indiana used them for just 15 points and you'd hardly noticed with the 28 assists and rebounding. Markkanen came off the bench scoring as the Bulls led 30-28 after one quarter. With White as his tag team partner to start the second quarter, the Bulls got up quickly by 12, eased it to 13 at the half and then Vooch-a-fied the Pacers the rest of the way. Indiana did slice their deficit to 13 early in the fourth quarter. But Vucevic put in a running hook and finished a LaVine pass for a score. Make it a checkered flag for Indy. The Bulls formula won.
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