Maybe Bulls point guard Lonzo Ball was being a good teammate. Or maybe, just maybe, he was issuing a warning to the rest of the Eastern Conference.
‘‘[Center Nikola Vucevic] is a big part of this team,’’ Ball said, discussing Vucevic’s first real statement game of the season Monday against the Hornets. ‘‘I think he’s going to have a lot more nights like this.’’
That would be a big problem for opponents. Make that three big problems.
As long as forward DeMar DeRozan and guard Zach LaVine stay healthy, they are going to get their points. Go ahead and pencil them in for 25 on most nights.
But that doesn’t mean the two are unstoppable. There are cold shooting nights sprinkled in, and there are certain teams — the Warriors and Heat, for example — that have the personnel and the scheme to make DeRozan and LaVine have to grind for their points.
‘‘Muck up the game,’’ as DeRozan says.
But if the Bulls have an offensively engaged Vucevic clicking from the paint and from the arc, like he was in scoring 30 points against the Hornets? Good luck.
Vucevic hadn’t even played well this season until Monday, but he still has been a major factor in terms of where the Bulls sit in the standings.
In the seven games Vucevic missed because of the coronavirus, the Bulls (14-8) went 4-3. When he has been held to 14 points or fewer in the 15 games he has played in, the Bulls are 3-4.
There’s no doubt he is one of the more important players on the roster heading into December — and the one who has had to sacrifice the most in this attempt at building a Big Three.
With the LeBron James- and Dwyane Wade-led Heat of a decade ago, Chris Bosh had to sacrifice. With the Warriors’ dynasty that featured Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, it was Draymond Green. And in the Nets’ attempt at a Big Three last season, Kyrie Irving had to move off the ball and give Durant and James Harden the controls when the three were healthy enough to play together.
This Bulls model is no different: Someone has to sacrifice.
‘‘I was the main guy in Orlando for years, and the ball was always with me,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘I knew I was going to get my shots, regardless of how the game was going. Now it’s a little different.
‘‘We have more talent and more guys on the ball. Just have to find my spots and make sure I don’t get in their way. And also [they need] to get used to playing with a big man like me.’’
Scoring 30 points and shooting 6-for-6 from three-point range makes life a lot easier to get used to.
Just go back a couple of weeks to when the Bulls were without Vucevic and Tony Bradley was playing in the middle. There was no threat from outside, no one pulling the opposing big man out of the paint to free attack lanes for LaVine and DeRozan and few backdoor passes from a center.
Is Vucevic going to protect the rim and play defense the way Bradley does? No, but the Bulls know that. That’s why they added players such as Bradley and Derrick Jones Jr. during the offseason.
But before Bulls fans start planning for a title celebration, the victory against the Hornets — as well as Vucevic’s performance — was one game. And one game against a team that allows the second-most points (114.9) in the league.
Next up are the Knicks and the Nets. Check back after that.