The Nikola Vucevic era of Chicago Bulls basketball began on Saturday night in San Antonio, but it unfortunately looked a lot like what we’ve seen against playoff competition in recent years. The Spurs jumped on the Bulls from the start and built a lead as large as 36 points in the third quarter before holding off a late surge to hand the visitors a 120-104 loss. There was even a 30-point deficit alert in the first half as the Spurs used an 18-0 second-quarter run to go up 31.
Vucevic put up a respectable stat line in his Bulls debut, going for 21 points (9-of-16 shooting), nine rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes. He was a team-worst minus-24, though, and we saw some of his defensive limitations as a rim protector as the Spurs attacked the Bulls in the paint to start the game en route to 58 points in the painted area.
Of course, this wasn’t all his fault. Billy Donovan decided to stick with Lauri Markkanen in the starting lineup instead of Thaddeus Young and the Vucevic-Markkanen pairing was predictably clunky. Markkanen was largely invisible as his struggles continue on both ends, as he shot just 4-of-10 overall and 1-of-6 from 3-land while doing little else and not providing much resistance defensively. Patrick Williams also really struggled defensively and was ineffective in 19 minutes.
It also didn’t help that Zach LaVine didn’t look like himself at all. A third-quarter when the game was out of hand made his final line of 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting not all that disastrous, but he started terribly and was noticeably limping at times as he deals with an ankle injury. Donovan didn’t even bother bringing LaVine back in when the Bulls made their big run to make things interesting.
The Bulls certainly looked disjointed for much of this game as they worked in their new players, minus Daniel Theis. Donovan’s early rotations were interesting to say the least, with Al-Farouq Aminu and Coby White the first subs midway through the first quarter. With Theis unavailable, Young was the backup 5 replacing Vucevic a few minutes later. Garrett Temple was back in the lineup, while Denzel Valentine was the 10th man in the first half over Troy Brown Jr. Valentine was brutal in his short first-half stint, and he capped off an especially painful sequence by airballing a floater after Markkanen missed yet another dunk attempt.
Brown got the call in the second half and played a key role in getting the Bulls back in the game. He knocked down his first shot (a 3-pointer) and had a few nifty finishes. He had eight points, three assists and was a team-best plus-12 in 14 minutes. It’s easy to chalk up some of Brown’s effectiveness to the Spurs just letting up after getting a huge lead, but with Valentine’s shooting going in the toilet, there’s little reason for the youngster to not get that rotation spot at this point. There’s more upside and Brown might just be better than Valentine right now anyway.
The Bulls started their comeback after going down 91-55 with about four minutes to go in the third quarter. They finished the third on an 18-5 run and then just kept scoring as the Spurs’ offense went in the tank. After scoring 55 points in the first 32 minutes, the Bulls went on a 43-16 run over about 11 minutes to get the score to 107-98 with 5:13 to play after a Vucevic triple.
Unfortunately, the crafty DeMar DeRozan then got Brown with one of his patented pump fakes, knocking down a jumper and drawing the foul. After an awful Coby White possession (he had actually been playing well during the comeback) resulted in a miss, Jakob Poeltl scored and was fouled on the other end to push the Bulls’ deficit back out to 14. Poeltl then stuffed Vucevic and began a parade to the charity stripe as Donovan attempted some Hack-a-Jak. It didn’t work, and the game never got close again.
We shouldn’t overreact to one bad performance by this new group. It was a perfect storm of suck for much of it, and chemistry will need to be built with these new guys. LaVine’s ankle will be something to monitor moving forward as he looks to build a rapport with Vucevic. The lineups and rotations will also be interesting to watch, especially when it comes to Markkanen and Young, who was one of the few bright spots with 10 points, nine assists and six rebounds in 22 minutes. Young is the better player and should be playing more. That doesn’t necessarily mean he has to start, even if the fit makes more sense, but he should get more minutes unless Markkanen really has it going. Theis’ arrival will also factor into this calculus.
The Bulls are now 19-25 and two games back of the Heat and Pacers, but still 1.5 games ahead of the 11th-place Raptors. The scuffling Warriors without Stephen Curry are up next on Monday, so that should give Chicago a good chance to get right.