Bulls say goodbye to an old closer as a new one emerges in Zach LaVine's breakout night


Bulls say goodbye to an old closer as a new one emerges in Zach LaVine's breakout night

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.”

Jabari Parker has bounce and perseverance, but what's in the Chicago native's future?


Jabari Parker has bounce and perseverance, but what's in the Chicago native's future?

Jabari Parker still has bounce.

Either that or he’s gained it after two ACL surgeries that have stalled his once promising career, evidenced by his devastating drive down the middle of the Bulls defense for an unexpected dunk.

Or his flash on the break, finishing with a one-handed slam from Brandon Jennings in the second quarter.

But what does it mean for his future?

Parker played in his first game back in his hometown after returning from injury, his first start of the season came in the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ franchise player.

In 30 minutes, he was three for 10 from the field for six points, four assists and three rebounds in his 20th game of the season as the Bucks held off the Bulls for a 118-105 win at the United Center. For the season, Parker is averaging 11.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 21.7 minutes while shooting a career-high 51 percent in a contract year as restricted free agency is looming.

Outwardly the Bucks say they’ve been pleased with his play, but the rumors persist this marriage won’t last long.

“(He’s) very good, for someone who’s gone through that twice,” Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty said. “His demeanor, his approach, is very good. He’s worked extremely hard to get back in that position he’s in. Each night we ask a lot of him that we do of everybody else. Scoring is one thing. We need him to rebound. We know he can playmake. Defend. He can play inside, he can play outside. He’s a versatile player.”

Hard to remember, it was Parker who was supposed to be that guy for the Bucks when he was drafted second in 2014, as the argument going into that draft was about Parker or Andrew Wiggins as the best player.

The Chicagoan has had to endure stops and starts since his NBA career began, tearing his ACL 25 games into his rookie campaign. He returned to play 75 games the next season before appearing to blossom even more last year, averaging 20.1 points in the first 50 games.

Then he tore it again right before the All-Star break, halting the Bucks’ vision of having three versatile wings that could cause havoc in Antetokounmpo, Parker and Khris Middleton, an underrated star.

Not only that, it made for awkward contract negotiations as Parker was recovering from surgery before the October deadline and the Bucks reportedly offered a three-year deal around $18 million annually that Parker turned down in the expectation of getting a max deal.

With Antetokounmpo taking yet another step into superstardom, it’s difficult for the Bucks to commit financially that way, especially when Parker doesn’t seem like a natural fit next to Antetokounmpo.

Parker, like many others from his draft class including the Bulls’ Zach LaVine, face an uncertain future with restricted free agency this summer. At least in LaVine’s case, the Bulls have called him one of their building blocks after the Jimmy Butler trade.

For Parker, it’s been reported he was shopped around the trade deadline and nearly moved—which coincided with his season debut Feb. 2. As if he had enough to worry about in terms of getting his body in order and trying to prove where he fit within his own team’s hierarchy, the business of the NBA reared its ugly head.

For the Bucks, their No. 1 priority is Antetokounmpo, as it should be. Parker finding his way amongst the circumstances just made things murkier, just recently crossing the 30-minute threshold against the Clippers where he scored a season-high 20 points.

“With the minute restrictions it’s hard to play,” Prunty said. “Actually I think for him, we’ve struggled with scoring off our bench. He gives us scoring off our bench.”

Friday was only the second time this month where Parker didn’t score in double figures, so even if the future is on his mind, it’s not turning into selfish play—at least offensively.

You can see the missed rotations on defense and note how well the team plays when the ball moves from side to side—a common tacit note of criticism with players like Parker and Carmelo Anthony, guys who need the ball and space on the floor to score.

“Just trying to make it happen,” Parker said. “Coming off the bench, or I’m starting, just trying to do what I can.”

Middleton is a more natural fit next to Antetokounmpo, because of the economy of space he uses when he gets the ball. He rarely uses more than the space around his shadow and has found a way to be efficient around Antetokounmpo.

Parker is more naturally gifted, though, and at least while he’s in Milwaukee, finding ways to play within that simple construct is his best bet.

“This last stretch of games will be important going into the playoffs,” Jennings said. “Finding his rhythm. Me being out there with him, I’m trying to get him going, get him into a better rhythm and things like that. Make the game easier for him.”

Jennings is in his second stint with the Bucks and was in a similar position before his restricted free agency. He and the Bucks couldn’t come to terms, and he wound up being traded to Detroit in a package, which involved sending Middleton among others to Milwaukee.

He knows how thought of the future can play into someone’s mind, let alone the double task of returning from another serious injury.

“It shouldn’t. At my age now (28), I would say it shouldn’t,” Jennings said. “But I know at that age it did for me. From me to him, he gotta look at the big picture. We’re going to the playoffs. We have a chance to get out the first round. You can’t worry about that. That takes care of itself. Once you win, sky’s the limit.”

For his part, Parker and the Bucks are saying the right things, knowing the summer awaits where the true feelings for all will be shown and a future path will be decided.

“No, I don’t think it was. I don’t think it has. My play dictates (this summer),” Parker said. “I think I’ve been doing good so far. I don’t have anything to worry about.”

Bulls Bracket Madness: The best individual seasons in franchise history


Bulls Bracket Madness: The best individual seasons in franchise history

We're trying to figure out the best season in Bulls franchise history, and we want your help in deciding.

Because the Bulls tout the greatest player in basketball history, who could have made up this list by himself, we're giving Michael Jordan his own side of the bracket. But the other side of the bracket is also filled with some pretty memorable and remarkable campaigns.

So read up on each matchup and then have your voice heard by voting on our Twitter page here. Check out the entire bracket in the graphic above.

The Jordan Region

No. 1 Michael Jordan (1995-96) vs. No. 8 Michael Jordan (1990-91)

No. 1 Michael Jordan (1995-96): Jordan was on a mission in his first full season back from retirement. He led the Bulls to a then-record 72 wins with a regular-season MVP award, All-Star MVP and romp through the NBA playoffs, where the Bulls went 15-3 en route to their fourth NBA title. Jordan won his eighth straight scoring title at 30.4 points a game, with nine games where he put up 40 or more. He saved his best for Detroit, scoring 53 with 11 rebounds and six steals in early March. To prove Jordan was getting better as he aged, he shot a career-high 43 percent from 3-point range at age 33.

No. 2 Michael Jordan (1990-91): 1990-91: Jordan's second MVP came with his first NBA title, as he was at the peak of his powers physically combined with the ultimate team success, with the Bulls finally getting past Detroit before defeating the Lakers in the Finals. He shot a career-high 54 percent from the field while averaging 31.5 points, six rebounds and 5.5 assists as he began to fully embrace the triangle offense in Phil Jackson's second season. Jordan had 57 games where he shot better than 50 percent from the field, and was among the league leaders in steals at 2.7 per game while earning his fourth straight All-Defensive First Team honor.

No. 1 Derrick Rose (2010-11) vs. No. 2 Scottie Pippen (1993-94)

No. 1 Derrick Rose (2010-11): Where to begin? The youngest MVP in league history took the league by storm, averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists while leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins. Rose had been named an All-Star the previous season but took his game to new heights in Year 3, appearing in 81 games, making 128 3-pointers (after making a combined 32 his first two seasons) while helping the Bulls rank first in defensive efficiency under first year head coach Tom Thibodeau. Rose and the Bulls lost in five games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, with Rose shooting a paltry 35 percent on 24 attempts per game. But his historic season will always go down as one of the franchise’s best, and the only non-Jordan MVP.

No. 2 Scottie Pippen (1993-94): Yeah, well what would Scottie be without MJ? We found out that answer in 1993-94, when Pippen took the reins of the franchise as Jordan rode the Birmingham bus as a minor-league baseball player. Pippen responded with a sensational season, averaging 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He averaged 2.9 steals, shot 49 percent from the field and became a 3-point threat for the first time in his career. He was named First Team All-NBA and All-NBA Defensive First Team, and finished third to Hakeem and The Admiral in MVP voting. He averaged 22.8/8.3/4.6 in the postseason but ultimately proved it was easier to win in the spring with MJ by his side. Still, this individual season was one of the franchise’s best, if not the best. Hardware isn’t everything.