DENVER — The Bulls’ life without center Nikola Vucevic continued Friday. And they might have to get used to it for a bit longer.
Coach Billy Donovan said Vucevic was showing better numbers in testing while in the NBA’s health-and-safety protocol, but he still hadn’t passed two COVID-19 tests within a 24-hour period, let alone started the cardio screening.
The Bulls also remained unsure about what kind of recovery time Vucevic would need from the coronavirus, so there are a lot of unknowns about his return. It very well might carry into next week.
What is known, however, is that the one-two punch of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan is still a lot for opposing teams to handle.
Thanks to 36 points from LaVine and 26 from DeRozan, the Bulls beat the Nikola Jokic-less Nuggets 114-108.
LaVine’s takeover in the final five minutes was a thing of beauty.
First, he made a 33-footer to put the Bulls ahead by seven. Then came a 23-foot step-back, followed by a kiss off the glass.
But the Nuggets wouldn’t go away, and when Will Barton made two free throws with 2:33 left to cut the Bulls’ lead to three, LaVine again stepped up by making a 28-footer. After a three-pointer by the Nuggets’ Austin Rivers, LaVine again reached down for a counterpunch, making a long two-pointer.
‘‘There were some plays he was a little disappointed with [earlier],’’ Donovan said. ‘‘That’s what he does: He becomes even more focused. He made some really remarkable plays and in many ways carried us.
‘‘For me, it’s remarkable to watch him. He’s one of the best tough-shot makers in the league. Everything he did [Friday] was a direct line and downhill. He just went. When he does that, it puts a lot of pressure [on the defense].’’
Then LaVine simply tagged in his partner to finish it.
DeRozan put the Bulls ahead by five with 38.2 seconds left, but no lead seemed to be enough against the Nuggets, as Barton made a three-pointer to cut the deficit to two.
DeRozan again had the answer, using the threat of his mid-range game to draw a foul and make two free throws with 11.3 seconds left.
That proved more than the Nuggets could overcome, as Barton missed a three-pointer from the top of the arc. DeRozan grabbed the rebound and made two more free throws as the Bulls finished a 3-2 road trip.
‘‘Just wanted to end the road trip the right way,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘They we were making big shots, we were making big shots. We did what we did. They’ve got to pick either me or [DeRozan].’’
That blueprint will continue, especially as long as Vucevic is sidelined.
Tony Bradley again was in the starting lineup against the Nuggets. He caught a break when he didn’t have to face Jokic, but he showed a bit of life, especially in the first quarter, scoring six points and looking more comfortable in Vucevic’s spot. As Donovan has pointed out, it’s not easy to replace Vucevic.
‘‘In fairness to him, a lot of times what we’re asking him to do is totally new,’’ Donovan said of Bradley. ‘‘It’s more than him screening-and-rolling because what’s happening is when they’re bringing pressure to Zach, to DeMar, to [guard] Lonzo [Ball], there’s areas of the floor he has to stop to create an opening so we can get it to him.’’