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Don’t look now, but Bulls big man Nikola Vucevic might be waking up

The downtime last week when the Bulls were shut down might’ve been a blessing for Vucevic because it gave him time to work on his game. Back-to-back wins and his improved play were good signs.

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic battles Rockets guard Eric Gordon during the first half of Monday’s game.
Bulls center Nikola Vucevic battles Rockets guard Eric Gordon during the first half of Monday’s game.
Paul Beaty/AP

It was more than just a sign of life. It looked more like a reawakening for Bulls center Nikola Vucevic.

The Bulls hope so, anyway.

Dec. 11 in Miami might have been rock bottom for Vucevic. The Heat not only blew out the Bulls, but Vucevic shot 3-for-15 from the field and was visibly frustrated after the game, searching for answers.

He found them the only way he knew how: by putting in the work. That always has been the recipe for Vucevic.

‘‘That’s the only way,’’ Vucevic said last week, when he was asked about his mindset to work his way out of the struggles. ‘‘I got here by working my way up to it. Talent is part of it, but I worked my way to the level that I am. And now that I’m going through a tough time, the only way I know is to work myself out of it.’’

In the Bulls’ 133-118 victory Monday against the Rockets, that work seemed to pay off.

‘‘We established [Vucevic] on the inside, and he played from there in that first quarter and established himself,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. ‘‘He shot it, he posted, he kind of got everything involved. And [Vucevic] is just going to keep getting better.

‘‘First of all, he’s too good of a player. He works incredibly hard, and I think he’s finding his way with a new team. And I think probably for him it’s a little bit different because he’s playing pick-and-roll with DeMar [DeRozan], he’s playing pick-and-roll with Coby [White], he’s playing pick-and-roll with Zach [LaVine], he’s playing pick-and-roll with Lonzo [Ball]. . . . There’s a lot of guys that he has to get on the same page with, and I think our guys are figuring out how to utilize him, as well.’’

Vucevic scored 18 points on 8-for-18 shooting against the Rockets, but he was 5-for-7 in the paint. On Sunday against the Lakers, he was 8-for-17 from the field, including 3-for-6 from three-point range, and finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds.

It was his best two-game stretch since games against the Hornets and Knicks to start the month.

‘‘It’s a long year,’’ Ball said. ‘‘[Vucevic] is a vet; he’s an All-Star. We were never worried about him. Obviously, this is a new situation for all of us, including him, so he was just trying to find his rhythm. It’s coming back to him.’’

And while Vucevic’s 16-for-35 shooting (46%) in the last two games is still below his career average of 49%, it’s progress. Coming out of the game against the Heat, Vucevic was shooting only 40.4% this season.

That was when the NBA stepped in and shut down the Bulls because they had 10 players in the coronavirus health-and-safety protocol. Two games were postponed, and team activity was reduced to one player working with one coach at a time.

Vucevic said the break gave him five days to work on what was ailing him.

‘‘I was just trying to work on my game, so I did individual work — lifting and conditioning — just to get my heart rate up,’’ he said. ‘‘Shot a lot. After that first wind [Sunday against the Lakers], I felt pretty good. I felt like we really didn’t have a break.’’

The best news through Vucevic’s struggles, however, is that the Bulls are 19-10, despite his inconsistency to date. And if the last two games are any indication, his best is yet to come.

NOTE: The Bulls signed guard Mac McClung to a 10-day contract, and forward Ersan Ilyasova might be on his way after the NBA granted the team more hardship exemptions.

Guard Devon Dotson went into the NBA’s health-and-safety protocols, and forward Derrick Jones Jr. (strained hamstring) and guard Alex Caruso (sprained foot) also will miss the game Wednesday against the Raptors.