Nikola Vucevic breaks out in a big way to lead Bulls to victory over Hornets

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) – Bulls center Nikola Vucevic admitted he felt a sense of relief.

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After struggling with his shooting for most of the season, Vucevic broke out in a big way Monday, scoring a season-high 30 points while shooting 12-of-19 from the field and 6-of-6 from 3-point range to lead the Bulls to a 133-119 win against the Hornets at the United Center. He also added 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks as Chicago improved to 14-8.

“You always need it as a player,” Vucevic said. “I have confidence in my game and I’ve been playing at a high level for a long time, so I knew that it was going to come. But obviously when you go through struggles, it’s never easy – especially because you feel like you’re not helping your team. And that was kind of the biggest thing for me. Because it’s a new team and we’re trying to establish something, and when you feel like you’re not helping as much as you should, it just bothers you and annoys you. So that was the main thing for me. I was just hoping to get out of that and help the team more.”

Entering Monday, Vucevic was shooting a career-low 40.0% and averaging 13.4 points, his lowest mark since 2012-’13. He was also shooting just 26.3% from 3-point range, his lowest figure since he started launching from behind the arc at a higher volume in 2017-’18. His 3-point percentage climbed to 33.3% with his perfect Monday evening.

Vucevic was also coming off a rough outing Saturday, when he shot 3-for-9 in the Bulls’ loss to the Heat and hit the side of the backboard on a wide-open corner 3-point attempt as Chicago tried to rally late. For him, it’s been a case of trying to find his rhythm with a new-look Bulls team that he just joined late last March in a trade.

Vucevic was also recently out for two weeks with a COVID-19 bout. He returned to game action last Wednesday and added he feels “fine” physically now.

“I just had to find my rhythm, work through some early struggles trying to figure out my spots and my positions and how to play with all my new teammates and my new role and everything,” Vucevic said. “I felt like I was getting my rhythm, then I got COVID and had to sit out. Tonight was a good game for me, and it felt great to make some shots.”

Bulls coach Billy Donovan noted Vucevic has “sacrificed a lot” to make the team better. By that he meant that Vucevic has been tasked with adapting his game more than anyone else on the Bulls. Much of the team’s offense is initiated by stars Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, who are both top-10 scorers in the NBA and who lead Chicago in field-goal attempts by a wide margin.

Vucevic is Chicago’s best screener and doesn’t work from the post as often as when he was the focal point in Orlando for years. He’s also not involved much when speedy guard Lonzo Ball and others push the pace in transition, which has been a key element of the Bulls’ strong start.

The fact that the Bulls had their best offensive performance of the season – their 133 points, 35 assists and 59.6% shooting were all season-best marks – on the night Vucevic had his best game was no coincidence. He’s a crucial piece and big talent, and they know that well.

“It’s great for us,” Ball said of Vucevic’s big night. “Vooch is a big part of this team. We’re definitely going to need him moving forward. Tonight, I think he’ll have a lot more nights like this. I think he’s still trying to find his rhythm with a new team and everything, plus he had COVID and stuff. Just working him back in. I think Billy touched on it the last couple games – getting him into the offense more and looking for him more. We did that tonight, and he came through for us.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.