Bulls bounce back in Orlando with different strategy for Nikola Vucevic
After allowing the big man to score a career-high 43 points and grab 19 rebounds Friday, the Bulls — led by Zach LaVine’s 39 points — had a new game plan Saturday.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan could have come across sounding dire if he wasn’t simply speaking the truth.
Hours before the Bulls’ second consecutive game against the Magic in Orlando, Florida, Donovan was discussing his short-handed front line and how it really had no prayer against Magic big man Nikola Vucevic, who was coming off a 43-point game Friday.
‘‘We don’t have the personnel to just play him man-on-man in the post,’’ Donovan said matter-of-factly.
That was an understatement.
Lauri Markkanen was out with a sprained right shoulder, Wendell Carter Jr. with an injured right quadriceps and Otto Porter Jr. with a chronic back issue. It looked poised to be another long night.
And it was — for the Magic.
Thanks to an aggressive Zach LaVine and a dominant defensive performance in the second and third quarters, the Bulls (9-13) earned a split of the back-to-back by walloping the Magic 118-92.
As for all those fears of Vucevic? He scored only 17 points and was a minus-41 for the game.
So what possibly could have been the secret sauce Donovan came up with after his pregame comments were filled with doom and gloom?
‘‘One is I didn’t think we gave him as open of looks [Saturday] as we did in the first game,’’ Donovan said of Vucevic. ‘‘The second thing was, I thought we really battled and worked to try to maybe extend his catches, make it a little more difficult for him to catch [the ball]. And then when he did catch it, if he was anywhere near the lane line, we tried to come with somebody.
‘‘I don’t know. Maybe he was 3-for-3, and now he has nine quick points [to start off the game Friday]. And now we’re trying to shut down a freight train, and it’s too hard to get it stopped.’’
The way the Bulls stopped Vucevic on Saturday was by throwing everybody at him. That meant even giving seldom-used reserve Cristiano Felicio some playing time.
As for the Bulls’ offense, LaVine took care of that from the get-go. He scored 11 points in the first quarter, had 22 at the half and finished with 39. More important, he showed energy on both ends of the court after Donovan challenged the team earlier in the day.
‘‘I agree it is a lot to ask [LaVine] to do, but he has incredible endurance and stamina,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘Winning sets the rules, I don’t. The game sets the rules.
‘‘It is hard to win. He’s got to play both ends, and he’s got to do that on both ends if he wants to win. That’s what it takes, and it’s hard. And he wants to do that and he’s willing to do it.’’
The question now is whether the Bulls can keep the momentum going, rather than having to be challenged by Donovan after every shootaround or walkthrough.
‘‘All good coaches — great coaches — they find ways to motivate their team; they find ways to bring out the best in their players,’’ said swingman Denzel Valentine, who added 20 points. ‘‘[Donovan] just said if we want to be a playoff team or take our team to the next level, which we have the ability to, we need to come out and we need to show it.’’