April didn’t go well for the “Vooch.”
Nikola Vucevic was well aware of that, as the big man was preparing to enter his fourth-career postseason, but his first with the Bulls.
This latest spring swoon started on April 2 against Miami, and lasted four games — all four losses — concluding with a blowout loss to the Hornets in which Vucevic went just 2-for-6 for six points.
One game that stood out, however, was the last meeting with Milwaukee on April 5, in which Vucevic had plenty of good looks, but very few makes, going 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 in plus/minus.
If the Bulls want any chance just to stay in games against the defending NBA champions, that matchup cannot be so one-sided.
Then again, that’s been an ongoing storyline for the Bulls’ “Big Three” all season long. On many nights, as goes “Vooch,” so go the Bulls.
In games in which Vucevic has scored 30 points or more, the Bulls went 3-1 in the 2021-22 campaign. When he’s scored 25 or more? How about an 8-2 record.
In Bulls wins this season, Vucevic not only averaged 19.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, but also shot 50.3% from the field. In losses, those numbers dropped to 15.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, while shooting 43.1% from the field.
In comparison, Zach LaVine’s numbers in wins were 24.7 points per game while shooting 48% from the field, and 24 points per game with a 47.2% from the field 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 cannot be understated.
There’s been more than a handful of games in which Vucevic has struggled offensively and taken that to the defensive side of the ball. That can’t happen.
The good news? Vucevic has taken on Milwaukee in the playoffs before. Just rewind back to the 2020 postseason, and while Orlando lost in five games, Vucevic dominated Lopez. Not only did Vucevic average 28 points and 11 rebounds per game, but shot 50% from the field and 41% from three.
So it’s in there, but is it still at 31 years old and with a team that often makes him a third option?
“They’re the world champs, so they have that confidence,” Vucevic said of what awaits him and his teammates, starting on Sunday. “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.”