In a span of 71 seconds the Bulls officially closed the chapter on the Jimmy Butler era, and may have opened a new one with Zach LaVine as the closer and leader to take the franchise into its next phase. If that sounds superfluous, you weren’t on hand to watch LaVine, all of 22 years old, match up with Butler on a night where he was honored with a video tribute and given standing ovations by the home crowd, and beat him at his own game down the stretch. On a night when all eyes were on Butler and Taj Gibson, both returning for the first time as visitors, LaVine stole the headlines, added to a quickly growing resume and made his own reunion against a former team the story of the night.
The fourth-year guard, who the Timberwolves traded in a package for Butler on draft night in June, scored his team’s final 11 points, including eight in the final 1:11, as the Bulls rallied to beat a Minnesota team that wanted a victory just as badly.
“I think everybody on both sides was ready for this game for a long time,” LaVine said after the game.
Though LaVine avoided admitting that he was playing with a chip on his shoulder against the team that dealt him in June - only saying it felt weird playing against old teammates - his aggressiveness spoke volumes. He took 26 shots, with a whopping 14 coming in the restricted area at the rim. He also went to the free throw line 11 times – a career-high – and played the best defense of his young Bulls tenure.
That aggressiveness paid dividends two-fold in the final 71 seconds. With the Bulls trailing 111-106, LaVine took an inbounds pass and drove past an over-aggressive Karl-Anthony Towns, finishing with a thunderous dunk. After Tyus Jones was stripped and lost the ball out of bounds, the Bulls ran a set that got LaVine an open look for 3, which he buried to tie the game at 111 with 41 seconds left.
Butler, who finished with a game-high 38 points, did what he had done so often with the Bulls, forcing his way inside on the next possession and finishing with a layup off the glass to put the Timberwolves ahead by a pair. But LaVine remained calm, and out of a timeout caught a curl on the left wing and hoisted up for a 3-pointer over Butler, who caught LaVine on the right elbow.
And after missing two crucial free throws two weeks earlier in a loss to the Lakers, LaVine calmly sunk three straight to put the Bulls ahead. On the game’s final possession he guarded Butler, who passed to Towns for an open 3-pointer. The shot was off, and though Minnesota grabbed the offensive rebound Butler missed a game-winner at the buzzer.
While not a direct comparison of the two players, LaVine looked a lot like Butler down the stretch. Powerful finishes on drives? Check. Clutch 3-pointers? Check. Calm free throws in crunch time? Check. Guarding the opponent’s best player? Check.
“For Zach, to go out and have that type of game where he was the go-to guy the entire fourth quarter – I think 7 or 8 minutes he was in there, that’s huge for him,” Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s big for his confidence to be able to go out there and finish a game like that and make big plays.”
The closing was new for LaVine; the scoring was not. Friday night marked his fourth straight game with 20 or more points, the longest stretch of his career despite averaging 18.9 points in 47 games last season. In that stretch he’s averaging 26.5 points on 46 percent shooting, made 11 3-pointers and has gone to the charity stripe 29 times, a sign of his improving aggressiveness and rhythm.
But on Friday it felt different. He single-handedly took over the game. In the first three games of his 20-point streak, the Bulls were blown out in Portland, never got within eight in the fourth quarter against the Clippers, and blew a seven-point fourth-quarter lead in Sacramento, with LaVine going 3-for-8 in the final period. In fact, the Bulls had lost all six games in which LaVine had seen fourth-quarter minutes until Friday.
But Friday’s fourth quarter was a different player, and one reflective of who he can be going forward. It was never fair to judge LaVine based on a handful of poor performances after he was away from basketball for 11 months. Instead he’s looked better each time he’s taken the floor, and adding a closing role to his list of tasks he’s being asked to do is just fine by him.
“I’m just trying to get my legs back and not try to force anything,” he said. “If you try to force something to happen it’s not going to. But it’s starting to feel good. I embrace that role.”
He’s also embracing a new home in Chicago. LaVine dealt with three losing seasons in Minnesota, only to be packaged in a trade that signified the end of the franchise’s rebuild. Instead of deciding whether or not to give LaVine a maximum deal coming off ACL surgery they used him to secure Butler, a low-risk, high-reward move.
But unlike in Minnesota, the Bulls have a clear plan for LaVine as a core piece of the future. And though Butler, Gibson and Tom Thibodeau were all given standing ovations prior to the game, it was LaVine who received the final cheers from a fan base who found a new reliable closer on the same night they said goodbye to the old one.
“These fans,” LaVine said of the atmosphere inside the United Center, “they deserve this. They deserve winners and that’s what we’re trying to do, (trying to) turn this franchise into. Hang those banners.”