A rough two-game stretch served to undermine all of the faith in the Chicago Bulls after a strong preseason and regular-season opener. But they displayed a newfound resilience against the Boston Celtics that we did not see from them last season.
Faced with a deficit that ballooned up to 19 points, the Bulls flipped the switch, outscoring the Celtics 106-67 from the 3:32-mark in the first quarter on and handing them their first loss.
That surge was keyed by several players with five reaching double figures in scoring.
Not the least of them was embattled big man Nikola Vucevic who has gotten off to a particularly strong start despite not shooting the ball particularly well. He finished with an effective albeit inefficient 18 points and, most importantly, a monstrous 23 rebounds.
Vooch Sounds Off on Big Game
Vucevic, who was celebrating his 32nd birthday, grabbed 15 of his 23 boards during a dominant stretch from the Bulls that spanned the second and third quarters and saw them put 70 points on what was the second-best defense in the East last season.
He etched his name in Celtics’ infamy in the process.
After the game, he spoke with reporters about how he was able to establish himself early – five points, six rebounds, and two assists in the first quarter – and often.
“There are good opportunities if they switch on me or I have a smaller big where I get to the paint and get some easy ones or if I catch it and they collapse, kick it out. It creates a lot of good open looks for us.” (h/t K.C. Johnson/NBC Sports Chicago)
Boston was also down center Robert Williams who is one of the keys to their defense.
Vucevic has struggled shooting the ball, going 36.8% from the floor in this game (0-for-3 3P) and 40% (5-of-21 3P) on the season. But his post-up attempts have gone from 3.4 per game or 18.3% of the time last year to 4.3 or 25.5% of the time this season.
“It’s all about getting into the paint and creating shots from there,” Vučević said. “I’m not a big analytics guy, but the numbers do show when you get to the paint and create shots from there, it’s a much higher percentage. It’s just common sense. The defense collapses and you make one or two extra passes and they’re in rotation and you’re going to get wide-open shots.”
Again, while not his most efficient night, Vucevic still got 12 shots in the restricted area, though he could sink just five of them.
It’s all part of a concerted effort by the Bulls and head coach Billy Donovan to work inside out.
Vooch Benefitting From Bulls Change
Donovan was adamant during the preseason that what the Bulls were doing on the floor was more of a “tweak” than a true change. Regardless, their focus on both ball and player movement was intended to create randomness for the defense.
Vucevic getting to move around more was a byproduct of that which the big man sought and something we saw play out in the preseason.
In the final year of his contract, this has been a solid start to the season for Vucevic coming off of a down 2022 campaign that saw him hit four-year lows in points and three-year lows in rebounds.
He has not been the shooter the Bulls wanted or need, but Vucevic is owning the glass.
A Moment of Controversy
During the third quarter with the Bulls up 82-68, Vucevic was whistled for a foul trying to block Celtic wing Jaylen Brown’s shot. He had an animated reaction to the play drawing the attention and ire of Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Mazzulla was upset that Vucevic did not draw a technical as Jayson Tatum had earlier in the game for his response to a call.
He drew double technicals and was tossed from the game.
Later in the game, Celtics forward Grant Williams was also tossed after making contact with an official while reacting to a call against him. It all played into a strong game for Vucevic who has endured plenty, including trade rumors, all summer.
The Bulls surely hope it continues.