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Nikola Vucevic returns but can’t keep Bulls from embarrassing loss

The All-Star center tested positive for the coronavirus just before the Bulls headed out for a five-game West Coast trip. He finally was cleared to play Wednesday and was looking forward to keeping things rolling for his team. Falling apart in the third quarter was not in the game plan, and now the Bulls are bordering on concern.

The Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic was cleared to play on Wednesday after being in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols.
The Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic was cleared to play on Wednesday after being in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

HOUSTON — The possibility crossed Bulls center Nikola Vucevic’s mind, but he also was betting on the science.

It was a bet he lost.

When Vucevic heard that 76ers standout Joel Embiid had tested positive for the coronavirus after battling in the paint with him in back-to-back games three weeks ago, he knew the protocols would force him into daily testing.

He didn’t know he would be missing seven games because of it.

“There have been other people throughout this whole pandemic that I’ve known that were positive, and I was around them and I didn’t get it, so I just don’t think there’s any rules on how you can get it or how it works,’’ Vucevic said. “[Embiid] got it, and obviously I was hoping I didn’t get it, but we knew it was a possibility because I was getting tested every day for it since he got it, and one of my tests showed up positive. That’s the assumption, that I got it from him, but we don’t know for sure.’’

Vucevic missed a lot of key moments with his teammates and was glad to be back in the mix against the Rockets for the showdown Wednesday.

Well, at least for the first half.

Despite getting Vucevic and Alex Caruso back in the lineup, the Bulls let what started off as an easy night become very difficult, then simply embarrassing, losing to the 2-16 Rockets 118-113.

Look no further than the third quarter. The same quarter that doomed them in Portland last week.

After going into halftime looking very much in control, the Bulls saw a nine-point lead quickly disappear in the third. And it wasn’t too hard to find the reasons why Houston outscored the Bulls 35-18.

There were five turnovers, 1-for-7 shooting from three-point range and a 12-6 rebounding disadvantage in the quarter. But the real crime was a low-energy effort on defense, which allowed a young team to get comfortable.

The Rockets went 8-for-11 (72.7%) from long range and scored 10 points off Bulls turnovers.

“We can’t be a good team doing that,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. “I don’t know how many games ago was Portland, but to me that’s too close a window to have two games like that. Where you look at those [third] quarters and just say, ‘My God.’’’

There haven’t been many poor fourth quarters for the Bulls, so surely there would be a rally.

One finally came with 6:21 left and the Bulls down 10. Within a few possessions, it was just five.

It looked like it could be just a one-point game when Lonzo Ball hit a three and appeared to be fouled, but instead the refs called an offensive foul, claiming Ball grabbed the leg of the defender when he was on the ground.

Donovan challenged it, and even with the call standing, the explanation didn’t make sense to him.

“It was such a big play in the game, and that’s why I challenged it,’’ Donovan said. “I was told he shot it, fell down and kind of grabbed the guy. Now I didn’t see that, but to me, to take away a three-point shot … being around Lonzo … as they were explaining it to me, it made zero sense to me. Zero. The way they explained it to me and what I was able to see did not make sense. If I can get a different camera view, I can maybe understand what they’re talking about, but it seems so far-fetched what they were telling me. … I’m not saying they were wrong, but I don’t know how you make a call like that based on what I saw.’’

The Bulls (12-7) could never recover and have lost two straight.

As for Vucevic in his first game back, he played 26 minutes and had 14 points and 13 rebounds before fouling out.

As for the Bulls as a group, it’s soul-searching time.

“I think it’s just really a collective lack of a sense of urgency from us,’’ Caruso said. “Concern is an iffy word. If we don’t pay attention to it and do things to get better, then it’s a concern.’’