On a night where the defending champion Golden State Warriors were in town, it was Nikola Vucevic who stood the tallest. With DeMar DeRozan sidelined for the third straight game due to a strained right quad and Zach LaVine struggling offensively, it would have been easy to chalk off this contest and look towards the NBA Paris Game 2023, where the Chicago Bulls will face the Detroit Pistons.
But then, Vucevic decided it was time to take over.
At times, it felt as if Vucevic took on the Warriors on his own, putting up a large lead over Golden State and then seeing it dwindle after the Warriors erased the deficit and even led at halftime thanks to a 42-point second quarter. The former USC Trojan was setting screens, throwing cross-court passes, and gobbling up rebounds for second chance points and possessions, keeping the Bulls in lockstep with Golden State.
When the dust settled, Vucevic tied his career-high of 43 points and added 13 rebounds, four assists, and four steals (a third of Chicago’s 12 steals and nearly matching the Warrior’s output of six steals). All that and more helped the Bulls end a three-game losing streak and earn a 132-118 win.
Vucevic is as crafty as they come, blending brute force with finesse. Much of that was evident in Chicago’s over Golden State, but the little things he does (e.g., the aforementioned screen-setting, rebounding, and ability to get extra possessions and points) endear the 32-year old to teammates, coaches, and even the Bulls front office management. One won’t hear a pip of any offcourt issues from the Montenegrin, who has pretty much been the consummate teammate.
Playing in a lineup with the likes of DeRozan and Lavine, whose combined usage rate of 55.8 percent points to how they tend to have the ball a lot in their hands, means that there are games where Vucevic has to get his touches off misses or when the defense collapses on the backcourt. Although All-Star appearances in 2019 and 2021 may say otherwise, he can at times be the forgotten man in a lineup at full strength.
It’s not exactly a deterrent nor a hindrance, but it does at times mask the true value of how Vucevic holds things together. In a night like this, where an incomplete Chicago lineup took on not just the defending champions, but a group like the Warriors raring to get back to elite form, the Bulls’ true colors were revealed, and with it, Vucevic. Chicago didn’t back down from a fight, especially when the contest got tight.
Vucevic’s value, while at times underappreciated, has always been consistent. The same can’t be said, though, for the state of the Bulls. At 20-24, Chicago is barely clinging onto the last spot in the play-in tournament and have been in the headlines for the wrong reasons for a longer time than they were above .500. Rumors of discontent within the team certainly doesn’t help things when overlaps and defensive deficiencies are at times evident with the Bulls.
A win over Golden State may cure things at least for the time being, but that and the handful of days between now and their next game in Paris should give Vucevic and Chicago some momentum and time to rest, recover, and refocus. At times it takes a trip where players are forced to spend time together that can later on bring out the best in them. Or it can lead to an implosion.
The state of affairs of the Chicago Bulls as a whole is a discussion for another time, but regardless of what has been going on within and outside of the organization, the one constant has thus far been Nikola Vucevic. Time and time again Vucevic has proven his worth and perhaps it’s time the big man gets his flowers for the work he puts in. After all, at least one of his teammates gets it.