Big man Nikola Vucevic comes to the rescue as Bulls down Wizards
On a night in which DeMar DeRozan was inefficient early and Zach LaVine was inconsistent, Vucevic kept the Bulls afloat long enough for everyone else to wake up.
Style points went out the window awhile ago for the Bulls.
It probably happened sometime during the flight to Philadelphia in early March, when coach Billy Donovan’s crew was looking more like a pretender than a serious threat in the Eastern Conference.
Since then, it has become about doing whatever it takes to try to scrape out victories.
That was the case Tuesday against the host Wizards. The Bulls finally woke up at the start of the fourth quarter and gave a subpar Wizards team the treatment it deserved en route to a 107-94 victory.
They can thank center Nikola Vucevic for keeping them afloat.
Getting the ball to Vucevic early has been a game plan the Bulls have used often this season, but there have been far too many games in which they then seemingly have forgotten he’s on the team.
That didn’t happen against the Wizards, however. Vucevic made a layup to start the game, then made a three-pointer, a hook shot and another layup. Just like that, it was Vucevic 9, Wizards 7.
By the end of the first quarter, the Bulls led 28-23, and Vucevic had 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
The Bulls needed Vucevic to step up because guard Zach LaVine was questionable going into the game with soreness in his left knee and forward DeMar DeRozan looked like a player running on empty.
The Bulls led 51-46 at halftime, but DeRozan had only nine points on 2-for-12 shooting from the field and LaVine was scoreless. Vucevic had 20 of their 51 points on his way to a 27-point night.
‘‘We talked about it a little bit [Tuesday] morning at the breakfast meeting,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘Just trying to get [Vucevic] going early. I thought we had an opportunity to play through him in the post in the first half. They started trapping him [late in the second quarter] to get the ball out of his hands.
‘‘He got off to a great start and really carried us in the first half because we really struggled to shoot the ball. His 20 points were really important going into the locker room.’’
And appreciated — both by Vucevic and his teammates. He had been asking to get more touches during the Bulls’ five-game road trip, and they finally heard his request.
‘‘We just tried to do a better job playing through [Vucevic], especially with me and Zach getting doubled so much,’’ DeRozan said. ‘‘Once he gets it going, making baskets, it just makes everybody’s job easier.’’
Very little seems to be easy for the Bulls these days, however. Like they’ve done far too often lately, they turned a good start into a head-shaking performance early in the third quarter. In less than two minutes, the Bulls’ five-point lead had turned into a two-point deficit.
Their sleepwalking continued through most of the quarter, leaving the Bulls with a two-point lead and some work to do going into the fourth. That’s when DeRozan took over, shooting 6-for-7 from the field and scoring 14 of his game-high 32 points.
‘‘For me, especially in the fourth quarter, I just try and erase the previous three quarters, shot-wise,’’ DeRozan said. ‘‘I feel a switch when the fourth quarter starts. It’s like a different game for me. I try and approach it with a different mentality, where you know everything is going to pick up and I try and do the opposite and slow down. You can feel the game is completely different come the fourth quarter.’’