10 Observations: Bulls, Nikola Vučević Break Out Against Hornets

10 observations: Vučević breaks out in win vs. Hornets originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls entered Monday’s matchup with the Charlotte Hornets losers of three of their last four games and due for an offensive breakout.

The United Center crowd got one in the ensuing contest, which the Bulls won 133-119, posting a slew of season-highs on the offensive end of the floor behind an even more needed 30-spot from Nikola Vučević.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Billy Donovan said after the Bulls’ loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday that his team needed to do a better job of setting up Vučević.

Well, mission accomplished against Charlotte, against whom Vučević put together his best performance of the season. He tallied 30 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks in the contest, shooting 12-for-19 from the field and 6-for-6 from 3-point range. Those point, field-goal and 3-pointer make totals are all season-highs.

It started with a nine-point scoring spurt in 10 first-quarter minutes, Vučević’s longest opening stint since returning from COVID-19. Later, he capped off an eight-point second period with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to put the Bulls ahead 69-58 at the break — and bringing his halftime statline to 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists and one block. 

He opened the third quarter with two more confident catch-and-shoot 3s, one trailing in transition, the other working pick-and-pop with DeMar DeRozan. In the fourth, he added a crucial layup and his sixth 3 to steady the ship after the Bulls’ commanding grip on the game began to slip.

All night, the ball seemed to find Vučević in all the right places on the perimeter, and he stepped into those looks with a confidence unseen for quite a while. He looked more comfortable finishing inside as well, where Donovan noted postgame he posted up more often than in past games, and when he drew two defenders on drives and post touches, he picked out cutters and spot-up shooters with poise.

2. The Hornets entered play first in the NBA in 3-point percentage and sixth in 3-pointers made per game. Their long-range marksmanship was a factor early on.

In the first quarter, the visitors shot 6-for-11 from behind the arc, flipping an at one time nine-point deficit into a 31-30 lead entering the second. Vučević, in a few tough possessions, was exploited in pick-and-roll/pop coverages, with PJ Washington freeing up to go 4-for-4 from distance in the opening frame. Then, in a second quarter the Bulls won by 12 points, the Hornets buried just two of seven 3-point attempts.

3. By night’s end, Charlotte was a rather sterling 18-for-39 from 3-point range, but key was the Bulls, who entered play 28th in 3-pointers made per game, shooting 14-for-30 to hold their own.

4. In fact, this was the Bulls’ best offensive performance of the year, replete with season-highs in points (133), assists (35) and field-goal percentage (59.6 percent). They placed five players in double-figures, and eclipsed 30 points in each of the first three quarters before scoring just 29 in the fourth. Save for a stagnant stretch early in the fourth, the ball and player movement popped in a number of tantalizing sequences.

5. As alluded to, though, the good times didn’t roll all the way to the finish unimpeded. The Hornets opened the fourth quarter in a zone defense that confounded the Bulls for a stretch; utilizing a string of stops and transition opportunities, Charlotte opened the first four-and-a-half minutes of the period on a 21-6 run to slice a 19-point deficit to four with 7 minutes, 31 seconds to play.

But whatever the Bulls discussed during that timeout worked wonders. In the 2 minutes, 40 seconds from that stoppage to the next one, the hosts went on an 11-2 run to push their advantages back to double-digits, where it stayed for most of the stretch run. 

That spurt was catalyzed by a layup by Vučević out of the timeout, and two big Coby White buckets — a fastbreak lay-in off a Lonzo Ball steal, then a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer soon after. The Bulls went back ahead by 14 with a Vučević 3 with three minutes to go

6. DeRozan poured in a smooth 28 points and six assists on 12-for-20 shooting, including multiple ludicrous displays of shotmaking in the second and third quarters, where he racked up 16 of his points.

7. Zach LaVine, meanwhile, was questionable until starting lineups were announced with an illness; Donovan said pregame LaVine had been running a fever throughout the day, and after it, noted: “Physically, you could tell he was sick. His eyes were all bloodshot… He didn’t look himself.”

Still, LaVine put together a casual stat line of 25 points (10-for-18 shooting), six rebounds and five assists, most of which were accrued seamlessly in the flow of the offense. Twelve of those points came in a third quarter he opened with a catch-and-shoot 3 assisted by Vučević and completed with multiple slashes to the basket.

8. So for the second time this season, the Bulls’ big three of LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević each eclipsed 20 points. They combined for 83 points, 25 rebounds and 16 assists between them — a dominating effort in which each took turns taking over the game. A reminder of the ceiling of this group if Vučević comes alive.

9. Alex Caruso also broke into double figures with 14 points, seven assists, a swipe of a LaMelo Ball crossover and a crafty block of a driving Terry Rozier off the pine; still, the Hornets reserves outscored the Bulls’ 37-30, and flipped the game early in the fourth, continuing a familiar play of shoddy second-string scoring.

10. The Lonzo vs. LaMelo Ball matchup had the attention of many ahead of this one. In the end, Lonzo had the upper hand.

The eldest Ball brother, in a winning effort, scored 16 points, dished out eight assists and cashed four of his five tries from 3-point range, sparking multiple of the Bulls’ fastbreak opportunities that produced 17 points. LaMelo, meanwhile, came on as the game went along, finishing with 18 points and 13 assists, though he did shoot 5-for-15.

All the while, the United Center crowd delighted in every matchup these two had against each other on the court.

The Bulls move to 14-8 with the win, and hope to keep their momentum rolling against at the New York Knicks on Thursday.

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