It’s been a struggle for Zach LaVine, who found himself surrounded by blue jerseys whenever he ventured into the lane.
Sometimes he was stripped cleanly, one time he lost it on his own and the one time he found clear real estate LaVine was raked across the arm before going up for a dunk.
Fifteen seconds later, he and Fred Hoiberg were given technical fouls for letting the officials know about their displeasure. The official wound up going to both parties after seeing the replay but the damage was done.
The frustration was clear on LaVine’s face throughout the Bulls’ 112-106 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night at the United Center. LaVine was 3 of 13 for 10 points in 26 minutes in a game where the Bulls were without Lauri Markkanen, a late scratch due to lower back spasms.
Clippers swingman Sindarius Thornwell was in his chest, similar to Boston’s Jaylen Brown when LaVine was harassed into a terrible night a week ago. Some of it can be attributed to the differing lineups the Bulls have employed since the All-Star break, and it’s easy to forget he’s just recovering from ACL surgery.
One thing that has become evident as a larger sample size has been revealed: He and Hoiberg need an offseason together to determine how he should be best utilized.
“I’m excited to get to the offseason,” LaVine said. “I didn’t get one last year, that’s where I build and develop my game and get better at things I didn’t do before. I came in halfway through so obviously I’ll get some continuity with coach and the players throughout the offseason.”
In the six March games, he’s had three below-average games, highlighted by the Bulls tinkering with lineups. He’s playing with Robin Lopez one minute, then other players the next. The continuity of where players should be, along with getting a grasp of the offense, has been missing.
“We got a lot of different lineups out there, everybody’s trying to get comfortable,” LaVine said. “I’ll find my way, I always do. I don’t try to blame anything on anybody else, I’m the one taking the shots. I gotta be better.”
Hoiberg has found a way to unlock Kris Dunn in the offense, giving him straight line drive attempts and putting him in pick-and-roll situations. Markkanen has also benefitted from Hoiberg’s system, even with his ups and downs through his rookie season.
But LaVine doesn’t seem to find anything easy in the construct of the offense and considering what he represents for the present and long-term, they can’t afford for him to have too many nights like this when the games actually matter.
“We’ve got to find a way to get better shots,” Hoiberg said. “Too many times the possession is ending in a tough, contested jump shot. We’ve got to find a way, when we get in the paint downhill, to make the right play out there.”
The Clippers utilized DeAndre Jordan to the max, especially with Lopez playing just one quarter before giving way to Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis. Jordan found gold underneath the basket, never having to venture outside the paint for his 11 field goals, scoring 29 points with 18 rebounds and five assists.
“We’re missing assignments, we’re having random switches out there,” Hoiberg said. “Defending without fouling was probably what lost the game for us. They shoot 41 free throws to our 15.”
Lou Williams scored 26 on a parade to the line, making 13 of 14 freebies against a routinely compromised defense. It would be interesting to see if LaVine could have such a luxury, but he took just three free throws.
“I’ve always been a pretty efficient player, I need to get back to it,” LaVine said. “Whether it’s 3-pointer or midrange, either one. Getting your legs under you, getting your speed back, I think that’s gonna help going into next year.”
Portis led the Bulls with 19 points and nine rebounds on 8 of 19 shooting, being a beneficiary of a trapping Clippers defense. Dunn scored 18 with six assists while David Nwaba scored 15 points.
An early lead turned into a double-digit deficit in the third quarter, as the Bulls couldn’t get quality looks for a five-minute stretch. What was a 70-64 lead turned to an 84-74 deficit, obscuring the Bulls taking care of the ball and playing a clean game with 28 assists to nine turnovers.
The Clippers ran away to start the fourth and the Bulls made a late run, only to fall short in the final minute.
In other words, same old story.