A 2020 Nikola Vucevic playoff performance is just what Bulls need

It wasn’t long ago that the Bulls big man dominated Brook Lopez in a playoff series. Milwaukee still beat Vucevic’s Magic team at the time, but with more weapons around him now, Vucevic could hold the key to the Bulls making this first-round showdown a tough one.

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The Bulls need NIkola Vucevich to repeat his playoff success against the Bucks.

The Bulls need NIkola Vucevich to repeat his playoff success against the Bucks.

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April didn’t go well for “Vooch.”

Nikola Vucevic was keenly aware of that as he was preparing to make his fourth career postseason appearance and first with the Bulls.

This latest spring swoon started April 2 against the Heat and lasted four games — all losses — concluding with a blowout at the hands of the Hornets in which Vucevic shot just 2-for-6 for six points.

One game that stood out, though, was the last meeting with the Bucks on April 5, in which Vucevic had plenty of good looks but very few makes, shooting 3-for-19 from the field and grabbing just six rebounds. Meanwhile, the Bucks’ Brook Lopez dominated the battle of centers, scoring 28 points, pulling down seven rebounds and finishing with a plus-18 rating.

If the Bulls are to have any chance of competing against the defending NBA champions, that matchup can’t be so one-sided.

Then again, that has been an ongoing storyline for the Bulls’ “Big Three” all season. On many nights, as “Vooch” goes, so go the Bulls.

In games in which Vucevic scored 30 or more points this season, the Bulls went 3-1. When he scored 25 or more, they went 8-2.

In victories this season, Vucevic not only averaged 19.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, he also shot 50.3% from the field. In losses, he shot just 43.1% from the field while averaging 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.

In comparison, Zach LaVine averaged 24.7 points while shooting 48% from the field in wins and 24 and 47.2% in losses.

“He’s really important to our team, and he’s been important all year long,’’ coach Billy Donovan said of Vucevic. “I think for him, even when you speak to him, I do feel like that with some of him being in rhythm offensively, I really like the shots he’s gotten. Both from behind the [three-point] line and when he’s in the pocket.

“I think he’s getting good looks. He’s had some games, in particular that one game against Milwaukee when he was 3-for-19. But you go back and watch the film, and you like the shots. He’s taken and made those shots for most of his career.

“The thing about him is he holds himself to such a high standard offensively that he’s got to understand that in the playoffs he may not shoot the ball well. He’s still got to stay really engaged defensively, and he’s been such an elite rebounder for us.’’

Donovan’s point can’t be overstated.

There has been more than a handful of games in which Vucevic has struggled offensively and taken that to the defensive end. That can’t happen.

The good news: Vucevic has excelled against the Bucks in the playoffs before. In the 2020 postseason with the Magic, Vucevic dominated Lopez, despite the Magic losing in five games. Not only did Vucevic average 28 points and 11 rebounds per game, he also shot 50% from the field and 41% from three.

But can he still be a force at 31 years old and with a team that often makes him the third option?

“They’re the world champs, so they have that confidence,’’ Vucevic said. “They’ve been in a lot of playoff series together, so they know what it takes. They’re a very organized team, and they play very good together. You have to really play to beat them because they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re one of the best teams in the East, but I think when we play well, we’ve played right there with them.

“We have what it takes to match up with them. We just have to do it.’’

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