Going into the Chicago Bulls vs. Milwaukee Bucks first-round playoff series, most predicted a quick set going in the reigning NBA champions’ favor. Legitimate concerns surrounded the Chicago’s lack of firepower and defensive deficiencies in a matchup with Milwaukee. But through two games, one Bulls’ player who was seemingly nonexistent in the last five games of the regular season rose to the playoff stage. That player? Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic’s Impact in Games 1 and 2
For the first two games of the series, Vucevic is averaging a double-double. His full stat line reads 24.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. In Game 1 specifically, DeMar DeRozan was shut down and Vucevic’s offensive output was one of the reasons it was even a competitive game. Despite dropping the opening contest of the series, keeping it close was a confidence booster for Chicago.
The Bulls’ last two regular-season games against Milwaukee were blowouts. Now knowing the Bulls could be competitive even with their best scorer not firing on all cylinders, it became an intriguing series. The momentum shifted in Game 2 as DeRozan found his shot and went off for 41 points. Vucevic contributed 24 of his own in the win.
Looking at the numbers, Vucevic is actually one of the top centers in the NBA playoffs. Only four centers are averaging 22 PPG this postseason — Joel Embiid (27.7 PPG), Nikola Jokic (25.5 PPG), Vucevic (24.0 PPG), and Karl-Anthony Towns (22.0 PPG). Within that group, Vucevic ranks first in field goals made, offensive rebounds, and total rebounds per game. For a guy many Bulls fans suggested should be traded all year, what more could you ask for in the playoffs?
Vucevic Still Has Room to Improve
While the above figures comprise a great stat line, there is still an area in which Nikola Vucevic can improve. He is last in free throw attempts, with 2.5 per game, out of the aforementioned centers.
With the Milwaukee Bucks short-handed (both Khris Middleton and George Hill out), the Chicago Bulls need to get their opponent in foul trouble. That starts with Vucevic getting to the rim. In Game 1, Vucevic was 2-10 from three-point range, making it his least efficient effort of these young playoffs. His efficiency improved in Game 2 as he took more shots on the pick-and-pop in the paint, but they were still jump shots.
ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith voiced some fair criticism of Vucevic on ESPN. “Nikola Vucevic don’t know a layup. I don’t know if he even knows what a layup is. He just shoots jump shots. Even though 6-foot-10 he is going to shoot jump shots or he ain’t going to do anything.”
Message received, but those jump shots were better looks than he generated in Game 2. Vucevic improved from 33.3% shooting from the field to 55.6%. Going forward, he just needs to draw more contact in the paint. Doing so will earn trips to the charity stripe and force Milwaukee’s biggest defenders to the bench. In turn, the Bulls will see more favorable matchups when facing a smaller lineup.
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