Nikola Vucevic checked into the game with 5:56 to go in the 4th quarter. Jalen Suggs made his free-throw before Coby White went down the floor to hit a deep two and cut the Magic lead to 104-91.
A comeback felt out of reach, but DeMar DeRozan tried his hardest. Mr. 4th quarter already had 13 points to his name in the final frame, continuing to carve up the Magic’s 24th-ranked defense in hopes of giving his team a chance. Dribbling the ball up with an opportunity to make it a 10-point game, Vucevic ran over to set the high screen. The big man popped out, DeRozan passed it, and the ball looked short the moment it left Vucevic’s had.
“You can live with that one, as long as DeRozan gives it up,” Orlando color commentator Jeff Turner said in relief.
As a two-time All-Star who has widely been considered one of the better centers in the Eastern Conference, that’s not a comment you want to hear. Not to mention, it came from a broadcaster who saw first-hand the peak of Vucevic’s powers the past handful of years. But … he was absolutely right. Considering Vucevic was a staggering 4-18 from the field and 2-7 from downtown, it was a questionable shot at best. Worse, it was a shot that felt fueled more by frustration than IQ, which is uncharacteristic even for a struggling Vooch.
Not only did that moment sum up the game for Vucevic, but also much of his season. The big man continues to shoot a career-low 43.1 percent from the field, and his 32.3 percent clip from behind the arc is his worst mark since the 2017-18 season. According to Cleaning the Glass, his overall 48.3 effective field goal percentage ranks in the NBA’s 12th(!) percentile. Yuck, yuck, and more yuck.
Yeah I mean I just can't believe this is real life pic.twitter.com/Rw53JzPy0N
— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) January 24, 2022
But, hey, if Vucevic has proven anything over his career, it’s that the man can score. While this slump comes and goes in unfortunate waves, he has still shown us this season he can come up big with 24 points in a win over Cleveland, 27 points in a valiant effort over Boston, 22 points in 27 minutes versus the Pistons, and those are just a few recent examples. So what I think truly proved to be discouraging about last night’s performance was the lack of all the other little things Vucevic brings to the table.
While his shot has failed to drop this season, Vucevic has still positively impacted the game. He’s still been the NBA’s 7th-leading rebounder, he’s still been an efficient passer, he’s still set good screens, and he’s still taken care of the basketball. Hell, he’s even averaged a career-high in blocks and played some surprisingly solid defense in a handful of games. I know many like to hyper-focus on the bucket-getting, but all of those other small skills have kind of made up for the inefficient shooting … except for in last night’s game.
Vucevic added five turnovers and six personal fouls to the box score. As the Magic took advantage of the Bulls’ lack of perimeter ball pressure, Vucevic offered little resistance down low. He got a technical foul. He punched a chair. He had back-to-back offensive fouls. It was an uncharacteristically hectic performance, and Vucevic knows it.
“Shooting, it’s just part of the game, I felt more disappointed in my focus defensively, some of the things that I’ve been pretty good at so far this year – getting back cut, going for pump fakes, not being in the right positions in the pick and roll, and things like that. It’s more things I can control regardless of if I shoot 100 percent or if I miss everything,” Vucevic told reporters after the game. “There are so many ways for me to impact the game. I didn’t bring the energy and focus tonight needed to help us win the game, so I think that also affected my shooting in a way.
Doing those things it’s part of being a leader, being consistent with those things. I felt like, for the most part this season, I’ve been doing those things well, and it’s been helping us in times even when I wasn’t shooting the ball necessarily well. It’s just tonight, I didn’t do them, and tonight it cost us more than me going for whatever I went for [from the field].”
First things first, I respect accountability. Vucevic has yet to beat around the bush this season. He has recognized his inconsistent shooting, and he has been the first to call himself out for erratic play. In a lot of ways, this is why I have yet to be too hard on the Bulls’ third star. Everyone has their slumps (yes, sometimes season-long), and Vucevic has said all the right things about trying to shake it.
Yet, at the same time, saying and doing are two different things. The Bulls are down bad right now with long-term injuries to Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, and Patrick Williams. To stay near the top of this Eastern Conference, Vucevic simply can not have any more nights like he did in Orlando.
Yes, that includes shooting better than 4-19 from the field, but it mainly includes consistently doing the little things. While the Bulls have enough talent to overcome some poor shooting nights, they can’t necessarily say the same about poor defensive effort, sloppy turnovers, or silly offensive fouls. Again, he’s done a good job not letting offensive frustration bleed into other areas of his game thus far, but he has to continue to do that for this Bulls team to find success. He didn’t last night.