You read that right, the now 11th-place Chicago Bulls just knocked off the best in the West, and on the road. Winners in eight of their last nine, Denver’s three-game homestand was spoiled by the Bulls fresh off of a heartbreaking loss to the Indiana Pacers. Sunday’s defeat, thanks to Tyrese Haliburton’s heroics, plummeted Chicago’s playoff odds and made the already uphill battle even steeper. Vucevic took exception to the outside noise this week regarding their playoff odds and absolutely took it to the soon-to-be back-to-back-to-back MVP award winner Nikola Jokic. Did the Bulls’ big man expose a real weakness in one of the NBA’s most unsolved mysteries in Denver?
Force Jokic To Be A Two-Way Player
Nikola Vucevic was the best big man on the court tonight, simple as that. He was able to outwork, out skill, and outlast Jokic en route to a 21-point Bulls victory. Vucevic put up an impressive 25 points and 15 rebounds, but even more of a masterclass was the efficiency with which he did it. 9-for-17 from the field, including 50% from downtown and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line, he was as good as he’s been all year. He also grabbed more offensive rebounds and had a substantially better assist-to-turnover ratio than the fourth leading assister in the NBA, who’s also top-30 in assist-to-turnover ratio this season. Vucevic ended with a plus/minus of +17, in comparison to Jokic’s -14. The secret? Force the Nuggets’ big man to play on both ends more consistently.
Millions have marveled at Jokic’s vision, passing ability, and overall control of a basketball game. Tonight, that was much less the case. The Bulls’ top-ranked defense in 2023 forced him into uncomfortable situations, including five turnovers and 43% from the field, 20% lower than his season average. He was forced to work on defense, to which he clearly wasn’t up for the challenge surrendering 70% of Chicago’s shots in the paint, and he was suffocated on offense to the tune of 9 Chicago Bulls’ steals. This might be becoming a bit of an issue for the reigning back-to-back MVP.
Bench Depth Is A Must
Denver’s bench was outplayed tonight by the Bulls’ second unit. Driven by Patrick Williams, who outscored nearly their entire team, tied with Jokic’s 18. The Nuggets’ bench was a combined -64, including a 2-for-8 Reggie Jackson, who’s supposed to be Hyland’s replacement since the trade deadline. They’ll be in deep waters come postseason play without much depth and high-level shot creation in their second unit. Hyland was shooting 40% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc, whereas Jackson has averaged 30% from the field and 31% from three-point land in his six games with the team and is a major factor in the dead spot that is their bench’s ability to keep them in games consistently.
What’s This Mean For The Bulls?
Frankly, much less than one would expect from taking down the one-seed on the road. Unfortunately, since they’re in the Western Conference, it does not impact tiebreakers or conference seeding, and at absolute best is the “click” that Nikola Vucevic referred to earlier this week. With 16 games left to be played and only standing one game back from a Play-In spot, it would be a fantastic time for the Bulls to start playing with fire and catch a hot streak down the stretch. If they plan on doing so, they’ll need to run through playoff opponents in five of their next six contests, but if they can take down the one-seeded Denver Nuggets and the two-time MVP Nikola Vucevic on the road, anything is possible.
Thankfully, as the fans all have seen all season long, the issue of being content heading into the next game was addressed almost immediately following arguably their biggest win of the season by several players and coaches. The leadership and “common goal” that was referred to all season long was on full display in times of desperation. They’ll face the 15-50 Houston Rockets next, who already bested the Bulls two months prior when Kevin Porter Jr. had 36 points to outduel DeMar DeRozan’s 31.
Better late than never? If the last 66 games have taught Chicago’s faithful anything, it’s to tune in nightly because something jaw-dropping seems to happen each and every game. Although most of those instances have been for reasons worse than hoped for when coming into the 2022-23′ campaign, victories like this are still oh-so-sweet.