For a window into the selflessness, and singularly-focused mindset, that has fueled the Chicago Bulls’ 20-10 start to the 2021-22 season, look no further than the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over the Indiana Pacers.
The game’s defining moment came in a short huddle between Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and acting head coach Chris Fleming, who is filling in for Billy Donovan he remains in health and safety protocols. With the Pacers threatening a rally, and the result of the game in the balance, DeRozan delivered the enduring message from that meeting in his typical, matter-of-fact fashion.
“DeMar said, ‘Hey, listen. Let’s stay with Zach,’” Fleming recalled. “‘I’ll play off him.’”
That’s DeMar DeRozan, who leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring at 7.9 points per period and has already carried the Bulls to many victories on the back of his clutch-time shotmaking.
But that’s also DeMar DeRozan, who, after scoring 19 fourth-quarter points in the team’s Dec. 19 win over the Lakers, texted a COVID-19-infected LaVine to “get his ass back as soon as possible.” It’s the DeMar DeRozan who participated in conversations with LaVine before the season wherein the Bulls’ closers agreed to always ride whoever’s hand is hottest late in games.
“It’s vice versa. We’ve been doing it all year,” LaVine said of the trust he and DeRozan share in high-leverage situations. “He’s been incredible in the fourth quarter, so it’s been easy for me to almost be like, ‘Get him the ball and get out of the way.’ Because coming up to this point, I haven’t won like this, and this has been the best feeling I’ve had of winning. So it’s been real easy for me.
“We play well with each other, and we’re straight up. We had that conversation before the season. Obviously, there’s going to be nights where I have it, he has it.”
On Sunday, it was LaVine’s turn. Fresh out of health and safety protocols, and playing his first game since Dec. 11, he submitted 32 points, five assists and shot 12-for-18 from the field, 5-for-9 from 3-point range.
That included 12 timely points in the fourth quarter (on 5-for-6 shooting) to counter multiple Pacers comeback bids. First, he grabbed the baton from DeRozan to score seven points between the 8:06 and 5:07 mark, which helped the Bulls maintain a 14-point advantage. Then, when Indiana cut it to eight points with three minutes remaining, he buried a stepback jumper, stripped Myles Turner for a block and banked home a driving layup to put the Bulls back out of reach.
“I’m just glad I got a couple of practices in to get my touch and my feel back,” LaVine said of coming back from COVID-19, which he acknowledged “sucked.” “I got to scrimmage a little bit and get a couple of practices in. And then when I got cleared I was going to the gym at night and shooting a ton. I think it’s just getting my touch back, and I felt fine.”
LaVine now ranks fifth in the NBA in total fourth-quarter points (174) and ninth in fourth-quarter points per game (6.7). DeRozan ranks second and first in those categories, respectively.
But LaVine has been near the top of the league in fourth-quarter scoring the last two seasons (sixth in 2020-21, 10th in 2019-20). He’s never shied from the moment, and has authored his share of crunch-time heroics, even during dark times for the Bulls.
The difference this year? Forming a two-pronged, fourth-quarter attack with DeRozan has led to more consistency – and wins. LaVine acknowledges the 13-year veteran’s poise is rubbing off on him.
“He's just so calm, man,” LaVine said of DeRozan. “I've always been somebody, especially with my past experiences, to where it's like, 'OK, I gotta do it now and do everything.' And it's just real – you know, if we're down 10 (points) I want to try to get it back right away. He's so calm. It doesn't matter if he has 25 (points) going into the fourth or if he has four. He takes that fourth quarter as a totally different game. It's something to learn from, and I think I've picked up a little bit on that.”
Submitted for evidence: In 44 “clutch” minutes this season – which NBA.com defines as in the last five minutes of a game within a five-point scoring margin – LaVine is shooting 51.7 percent and has yet to commit a turnover, the latter of which has been a problem area in seasons past. He’s one of seven players this season to have played more than 40 “clutch” minutes without a turnover. In 47 minutes, DeRozan has just one.
“I think Zach has certainly benefited from DeMar's demeanor,” Fleming said. “He's (DeRozan) not panicked, he's not rushed. In those moments, he'll just say what's on his heart, what he thinks needs to be done. And he's right most of the time.”
But for LaVine and DeRozan, the beauty is in the partnership. In 124 fourth-quarter minutes those two have shared the floor this season, the Bulls own a whopping plus-55 point differential. Huddles like the one they shared with Fleming on Sunday are a big reason why.
“Those guys are pretty selfless in that respect,” Fleming said. “Both of them are willing to sacrifice for the other guy. It really seems to work.”
You can say that again.