Entering play, it had all the makings of a dismal affair. Bulls-Cavaliers. One a bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference; the other an underachieving squad enduring an injury influenza.
By game's end, it was anything but. Thank you, Zach LaVine.
LaVine authored another chapter in what has become a sensational season Saturday night, tallying 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on 16-for-30 shooting (3-for-5 on 3-pointers) en route to a 118-106 Bulls victory.
"All-Star performance," head coach Jim Boylen said after the game. "I thought he was just unbelievable. Driving it, shooting it, creating. He got backdoor cuts, he got it in all different ways."
This was LaVine's fourth 40-point game of the season (tied for third in the NBA), and with it, he is now averaging 30 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 48.4/37/81.4 shooting splits in the month of January. If you're not satisfied with that 14-game sample size: Since his record-smashing explosion against Charlotte on Nov. 23 (32 games) that stat line reads 28.2 points (tied for fifth in the NBA), 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 46.1/40.6/83.
Those numbers are phenomenal — especially on supserstar volume — and are made even more impressive by the Bulls' offensive struggles around him. Tonight, in spite of 19 points, six assists and 8-for-11 shooting from Tomas Satoransky and spot buckets all around, the Bulls scored at a rate of just 77.8 points per 100 possessions with LaVine off the floor. With him on: 128.4.
That differential should knock you out of your chair, and that off-rating is actually improved from the team's 66.3 mark without LaVine in Friday's 99-81 loss to Sacramento. LaVine logged 39 minutes against the Cavaliers one night after saying he was "prepared" for any amount of increase in playing time with Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. all sidelined.
"He was frustrated after last night [against Sacramento], our team was frustrated, and I thought he responded, and I think that's what good players do," Boylen said.
LaVine's aforementioned 13 3-pointer outburst against the Hornets came one night after being yanked from a blowout loss to the Heat for what Boylen called "three egregious defensive errors." In Cleveland, he nearly amassed his first career triple double the night after — arguably — the Bulls' most lackluster offensive performance of the season.
"We didn’t come out to play the right way [against Sacramento], I just wanted to come out more aggressive," LaVine said. "Different mentality, the whole team, we were upset about the loss, and I took it upon myself to come out there and just be aggressive."
Asked if he was cognizant of his progress towards a triple double, LaVine said he discovered too late.
"I ain’t have one before," he said. "Literally, like, two minutes to go I was like alright maybe I should get a couple assists. But the game got out of hand, so I’ll get one eventually."
But even without that milestone, the improvements to LaVine's all-around game are notable. Since Wendell Carter Jr. went down with a high ankle sprain on Jan. 6, LaVine is the Bulls' leading rebounder, averaging six boards per game. Against Cleveland, he amassed five of his eight assists in the third quarter as the Cavaliers threw some aggressive defensive looks at him — including being guarded by Tristan Thompson on multiple occasions. He didn't just facilitate, he adjusted in the flow of the game.
"Third quarter they switched up their defense and I felt like I had to be a little more of a facilitator, there was a lot of attention," LaVine said. "I try to address the game the way they’re playing me but still keep my aggressiveness scoring the ball cause I know that breaks down defenses."
So, for now, the Bulls stay afloat. Wiping out the Cavaliers is no hefty feat, especially for a team that maintains playoff aspirations. But it's a nice response to the Sacramento dud, and LaVine's night gives him another notch in both his All-Star and general supserstar cases.
"He wants to be great," Boylen said.
He could very well be on his way.
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