Andre Drummond steps up in his 1st start for the short-handed Chicago Bulls, plus 3 takeaways from the 118-113 win

Andre Drummond believes he still should be an NBA starter. On Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks, he got his first opportunity to make that case in Chicago.

In 113 games since signing with the Bulls, Drummond had exclusively come off the bench. That’s because starting center Nikola Vučević had played every game in that span — until Tuesday, when Vučević missed his first game since April 2022 with a groin injury. Drummond started in his place, his first start as a Bull.

It was a critical moment for Drummond, who has been open about his desire to play more minutes.

“I’m doing what I can with the minutes I get,” Drummond told the Tribune earlier this month. “I’m just making the best of it. For me it’s never easy. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to look at the bigger picture. Coach sees something that he believes will work for the team to help us win. I’m all for it. My job is to be as supportive as possible for those guys who are in the game.”

Drummond entered Tuesday’s game averaging 13.5 minutes, the third-fewest in the regular rotation ahead of only Julian Phillips and Dalen Terry. Despite the sparse court time, he was averaging 6.8 rebounds, 6.2 points and 0.4 blocks.

He made the starting position his own Tuesday, leading the team with 24 points and 25 rebounds — his 45th career game with 20-plus points and rebounds. Drummond’s performance lifted the Bulls on both sides of the court as they came back from a 12-point deficit to secure a 118-113 win.

Here are three other takeaways from the game.

The Bulls aren’t used to playing without Vučević. In the nearly three years since he joined the Bulls, Vučević has missed only 13 games, including Tuesday’s. Seven of those absences were due to a COVID-19 diagnosis in 2021. The last time he sat out before Tuesday was April 10, 2022, when coach Billy Donovan sat most of the starters for the last regular-season game to prepare for the first round of the playoffs.

Ahead of his 82nd game last season, Vučević noted that being available for every game has been a point of pride throughout his career. It also has been a key factor for the Bulls, who have benefited from the constant availability of veteran stars such as Vučević and DeMar DeRozan.

But Vučević’s absence Tuesday was a reflection of a wider — and more concerning — theme for the Bulls.

Donovan said an MRI confirmed a strained left groin for Vučević. The injury occurred Saturday against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he contested a dunk by Max Strus, whose knee swung into Vučević’s groin.

Donovan said Vučević went to the team facilities Tuesday for treatment, and an estimated return date is unclear.

“A lot of it is going to be how he responds to rehab,” Donovan said.

Injured Bulls guard Zach LaVine grabs a ball after it went out of bounds during the third quarter Tuesday Dec. 26, 2023, at the United Center.

The Bulls have absorbed injuries throughout this season, improving steadily after Zach LaVine was sidelined and continuing to pick up wins after Torrey Craig joined the injury list. But they’ve done so by leaning heavily on three starters: Vučević, DeRozan and Coby White.

White (1,081), DeRozan (1,058) and Vučević (1,054) were first, third and fourth in the league, respectively, in total minutes played entering Tuesday. All three are hardy and known for their willingness to play through pain and discomfort. But this high volume of minutes is an invitation for injury — one that has claimed Vučević at least in the short term.

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The Bulls reversed a pattern that plagued them through the first 20 games of the season, taking an early lead in the first quarter before digging themselves into a hole in the second quarter.

After leading by 11 at the end of the first, the Bulls struggled to maintain their scoring. The Hawks outscored them 39-22 in the second quarter, including a 13-2 run.

The Bulls went 0-for-5 behind the 3-point arc and logged only two assists in the quarter. That was part of a wider trend for the Bulls, who logged only eight assists on 18 made baskets in the first half.

Breaking out of this sluggish start was key for the Bulls, who nearly doubled their assists in the second half to reinvigorate the offense. They finished with 23 assists on 42 made baskets.

Bulls guard Ayo Dosunmu shoots a 3-pointer over Hawks guard Garrison Mathews during the first quarter Tuesday Dec. 26, 2023, at the United Center.

Hot shooting has helped to power the Bulls through this 9-4 streak over the past month. But after shooting 40% or better behind the arc in seven of nine games, things have begun to even out the last three games.

The Bulls finished 7-for-25 (28%) behind the arc Tuesday. White went 0-for-7 and hasn’t made a 3-pointer in two games.

Despite the off night from long range, the Bulls shot 45.7% from the field as they went 35-for-67 (52.2%) inside the arc. DeRozan buoyed the offense, scoring 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.