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'He saved us': Nikola Vucevic has a career night as Bulls follow their script and beat the Warriors

Will Gottlieb Avatar
January 16, 2023

The Bulls keep on Bullsing.

Great teams bring out the best in these 2022-23 Chicago Bulls. Despite their now 20-24 record and 10th spot in the East standings, the Bulls took down the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors 132-118 on Sunday afternoon.

This game followed a familiar script for both teams: The Bulls played their best basketball against great teams. The Warriors fell to 4-17 on the road. Some real wackiness going on.

Playing through Nikola Vucevic

With DeMar DeRozan (quad) out of the lineup, the Bulls made it a point to run offense through Nikola Vucevic as much as possible.

With so much extra space in the middle of the floor to play through Vucevic, he was afforded a few opportunities to get going early. From there, it snowballed.

“When I get in my spots and I’m able to play within my strengths, I feel like I’m a very efficient player,” Vucevic said after the game at the United Center. “It’s not the first time I’ve done this, so I know I can do it. It’s just getting me in my spots.”

Vucevic is not wrong, he has done it before. He scored exactly 43 points, matching a career-high he earned against the Bulls as a member of the Orlando Magic on February 5, 2021.ic.

Vucevic also added 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals.

The offense ran through him as he was active in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game, generating shots for both himself and others. They made it a point to get him deep post position to either look to score or spray the ball out if the defense collapsed on him.

“As the season went on, the coaches have put an emphasis more on finding me in the spots I’m best at,” Vucevic said. “It’s something we’ve discussed a lot. Sure, I can shoot the three, but that’s not who I am. That’s not what makes me the player that I am.”

Despite formidable post defenders in Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, Vucevic has had some of his best offensive performances against teams against which he has the size advantage. And with that, the Bulls need to make it a point to play through him.

“The biggest thing is keeping him in rhythm and getting the ball in his hands,” Billy Donovan said. “That doesn’t mean to shoot, but to initiate some offensive stuff. Getting it to him in an area of the floor where he can pass it or try to go score.”

From there, he’s able to insert his post scoring and passing into the game. That creates openings for three-point shooters (the Bulls attempted 39, 10 attempts above their season average) and the opportunity to attack closeouts. When the Bulls can get downhill, their offense hums.

“Ball was moving, we were attacking, getting downhill, drive and kicking,” Vucevic said. “It was easy. That’s how I got most of my points. I didn’t really have a lot of points where I was going one-on-one, attacking and doing all that. A lot of it was just out of the flow of the offense. I got going early on and just kept doing it the whole game.

At the same point, he is often susceptible to being attacked in pick-and-roll by guard-heavy offenses that like to pick on slower bigs. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole have all put up big numbers against the Bulls.

So perhaps most impressive was his job containing the ball on pick-and-roll defensively. The Warriors are a nightmare matchup for most teams, but the Warriors guards can play sloppily, so his activity in passing lanes created openings for the Bulls to run in transition.

“Vooch saved us on some possessions,” Donovan said of his center’s defense. “There was some times where we were disadvantaged, but his active hands took away their opportunity and created a turnover or a stoppage where we could set up our defense.”

For the Bulls to be at their best, their best players need to be at their best. That’s what Vucevic did Sunday afternoon against the Warriors. The key will be replicating this, and finding a way to mesh it into the offense when DeRozan returns.

“A very good win for us, very important,” Vucevic said. “And hopefully we can use this game to really learn from and see what we have to do to give ourselves a chance.”

Up next: The Bulls travel to Paris to face the Detroit Pistons on Thursday. The CHGO Bulls crew will be there, so make sure you’re following us on social and subscribed to our YouTube channel for all the content we’ll be creating.

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