About the only thing missing from the Bulls’ 120-104 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Nikola Vučević’s debut was players wearing those “My name is...” tags on their uniforms.
The Bulls, who trailed by 36 points in the second half, looked like a team using four new players who hadn’t practiced together yet -- which is exactly what they were.
That’s why neither coach Billy Donovan nor Vučević or Zach LaVine overreacted to the night, even if some troubling warning signs surfaced that will need monitoring.
Offensively, an unselfish bunch needs to stop trying to not step on each other’s toes, as Vučević put it, and learn to instinctively read and react to each other. Defensively, well, that’s the larger potential red flag as the Spurs drove to the rim with little resistance early.
“The biggest thing we have to address is just our defense,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think we had enough presence at the basket for a good portion of the game. I think it started out top. Our ball pressure and our guard pressure in the pick-and-roll has to be much better. I thought the ball went wherever it wanted to go. And then I thought when it came downhill, we didn’t have enough presence at the basket to contest and challenge.”
Donovan started Lauri Markkanen alongside Vučević, a defensive pairing that could prove problematic. Daniel Theis, who is scheduled to meet the team on Sunday in San Francisco, will give Donovan more frontcourt pairing options.
Vučević finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and three assists. LaVine, who is playing through a sprained right ankle and sat out the fourth, shot 6-for-15 for his 18 points.
“Offensively, it’s different because I was used to playing one way. They were used to playing a different way. We’ve got to figure that part out and build the chemistry,” Vučević said. “It is a little bit more fun to figure out the offensive part, but defensively it’s just going to get all of us on the same page. I’ll be able to talk to the coaches and ask them certain things that for me about certain reads like off pick-and-rolls, on weak side help, things like that that I can get better at. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement there.”
Though the Bulls face a difficult upcoming schedule, they don’t have any back-to-back sets of games on this four-game trip. So there will be practice time, beginning Sunday in San Francisco before a Monday game against the Golden State Warriors.
Donovan also pointed out merely having the ability to watch film together of their first outing together should solve some of the offensive passivity.
“I’m very excited moving forward,” LaVine said. “Us playing in a tandem together is going to do really well. It’s going to fit. I think we’re pretty high-level guys, and we’re going to figure it out. I’m not scared about that.”
By night’s end, Vučević even could focus on some positives, like wearing a uniform that he idolized as a Michael Jordan fan growing up.
“Obviously the Bulls uniform is very special. I grew up a big Bulls fan because of Jordan, and I was a huge fan of the black jerseys when they came out. So to wear that one tonight was special,” Vučević said. “Obviously the Bulls are one of the biggest franchises in the NBA. It was special for me, for sure.”