LOS ANGELES — Ivica Zubac. Anthony Davis. Jusuf Nurkić. Nikola Jokić.
It’s not like the starting centers the Chicago Bulls face on the remainder of their five-game trip are getting smaller or any easier in terms of defensive matchups.
Life without Nikola Vučević is hard.
For all the hand-wringing and consternation over Vučević's early-season shooting slump, the 10-year veteran represented plenty for the Bulls. Size. Passing ability. Shooting.
Without Vučević to worry about, the Golden State Warriors attacked Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan at every opportunity. The Warriors, who possess the league’s top-ranked defense, even tried a box-and-one against LaVine, who also saw more double-teams in one game than he had all season.
Initially, LaVine did what he does with Vučević. He often used a pocket pass to try to release defensive pressure. But without Vučević's passing and shooting ability, the Warriors didn’t pay as much defensive attention to LaVine’s release point.
Eventually, LaVine tried taking matters into his own hands. Though he was the lone Bull to shoot at a solid rate, scoring 23 points on 10-for-17 shooting, he also finished with a game-high 7 turnovers and didn’t record an assist for the first time all season.
“Any great player I’ve been around always tries to take matters into their own hands,” said head coach Billy Donovan. “I always respect that. And I think Zach was trying to win. I don’t fault him in any way because he was making the right play. But the right play was not leading to points. And it was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to try to do something.’”
DeRozan, who suffered through his second straight difficult shooting night at 4-for-13, talked about not being able to find his preferred angles on drives. This is another reflection of the floor not being spaced as well as when Vučević plays, although DeRozan still attacked enough to get to the line 10 times.
“We know it’s going to tough without Vooch,” DeRozan said.
So what to do since Vučević, who landed in the league’s health and safety protocols following a positive COVID-19 test, isn’t expected to play until at least after this trip concludes? As previously mentioned, the opposing centers aren’t getting smaller or becoming easier matchups.
Offensively, Donovan said he wants to see more moving and cutting. That’s the best way to beat a set halfcourt defense. If the ball moves quickly to find the open man, double-teams have a harder time getting established.
The Bulls also need to get out in transition and try to generate early offense or score points off turnovers.
That leads to defense. The Warriors pummeled the Bulls on the offensive boards in the second quarter, flipping the game’s momentum. With the Bulls undersized, guards like Lonzo Ball, Javonte Green and Alex Caruso need to crash the glass. They’ve done a good job of that for much of this season.
Alize Johnson and Derrick Jones Jr. posted solid rebounding numbers in reserve minutes. Might Donovan be tempted to fully lean into small ball and try to make opponents match to the Bulls?
The Bulls did score 15 points off Warriors’ turnovers, a staple of their early-season success. But they turned the ball over a season-high 20 times, emblematic of players trying to do too much individually without Vučević instead of trusting ball and player movement.
DeRozan said the Warriors’ loss represented an opportunity for the Bulls. The veteran wants to see how the team responds to adversity.
The tests begin Sunday night with back-to-back games against the Staples Center tenants in the Clippers and Lakers.