Remember Nov. 22, 2019.
Perhaps forget the inexcusably flat start from the Bulls, which featured them lifelessly giving up the first 15 points in a 116-108 loss to the Heat — a game in which they trailed by as many as 26 points.
But remember the date as a potential breaking point in the Bulls’ rebuild.
This was supposed to be the season that turning points in the rebuild would show. Instead, with one very glaring substitution and some very pointed postgame words, Jim Boylen and Zach LaVine may be heading to the point of no return.
Boylen yanked LaVine for Ryan Arcidiacono just three minutes, 27 seconds after tipoff for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes that I’ve talked to him about.” And while Boylen has pulled LaVine early before, LaVine hasn’t reacted with as much pushback as he did following the embarrassing home defeat.
“I guess I was to blame for it. I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said. “I have to take it in stride. What did he say I got pulled for?”
Told that Boylen used the phrase “three egregious defensive mistakes,” LaVine turned sarcastic.
“Zach LaVine got 13 points scored on him, I guess. Or was it the starting five? I don’t remember,” he said. “I thought I was trying to do my job out there. I can’t do anything about that. I just have to control what I can control. I can’t control my minutes.”
Did LaVine feel singled out on a night the starters collectively came out flat and, ultimately, were outscored 62-46?
“If you’re just gonna pull me, yeah, for sure,” LaVine said. “But that’s not my decision.”
The plays in question were a late closeout on a made Duncan Robinson 3-pointer, no closeout on a wide-open Jimmy Butler 3-pointer that Butler airballed and a Kendrick Nunn drive past Shaq Harrison. There was also a Nunn 3-pointer in transition that LaVine picked up a man in the paint on as other players didn’t get back on defense in time.
“I don’t remember seeing three egregious mistakes,” LaVine said. “I think I was supposed to show on one. And I didn’t. I told him because Jimmy doesn’t usually set screens. He slips out of them. I didn’t want to show and have him cut right to the basket. They told me to show and I didn’t show. The other two, I don’t know.
“I try to talk early, especially the one with Kendrick Nunn. I had to protect the paint. You ain’t just trying to give up a transition layup. Once you call that man, it’s going to be hard to play two people. I’ll have to look at the one with Jimmy in the corner. I think we got messed up on a switch. [Shaq Harrison] called switch and one of us didn’t respond to it. He got an open three. I think he airballed that one, right? So.”
Boylen has challenged LaVine privately and publicly to become a better two-way player. The coach didn’t mince words when asked about his decision.
“I thought he needed a break. I thought he needed to come in and think about it. I felt there were some defensive mistakes that didn’t need to be made,” Boylen said. “I thought he needed to come over and think about it for a minute. I’ve done that a couple times this year.
“I think we can all do better. I put a lot of pressure on him to improve and be a two-way player. We’re still in those learning moments.
“I just pulled him. I’m not combative. Guys know. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen and our starters have to play better for us to become who we can become. It’s how it works.”
Indeed, Boylen has pulled LaVine in the first half for "message substitutions" twice this season. The first came on Nov. 3 in a loss at the Pacers. Shaq Harrison replaced LaVine for 43 seconds in the second quarter, and Boylen talked to LaVine as he walked off the court. During the Nov. 16 home loss to the Nets, Boylen replaced LaVine with Coby White for a 1:22 stint in the first quarter, although he also replaced Wendell Carter Jr. at this time.
Asked why he only pulled LaVine so early on a night several starters looked flat, Boylen said: “Because I didn’t want him in the game anymore. I think he needed to come over and think about it. He had three egregious defensive mistakes that I’ve talked to him about.”
Boylen has spent plenty of time with LaVine in the film room. They typically talk through such moments. But the nights when Boylen is seeking more from LaVine and Markkanen are becoming more common.
This is not how a rebuild progresses. And the dynamic looked even worse when a lineup of Harrison, Max Strus, Arcidiacono, Daniel Gafford and the previously buried Denzel Valentine led a fourth-quarter rally. Valentine, who has been buried by Boylen, sank three quick three-pointers.
That this potential breaking point came with Butler in the building, the same Butler the Bulls traded to begin this rebuild, made it all the more glaring.
“You have a conversation with him,” LaVine said on what’s next. “He thinks I had three egregious defensive mistakes. That’s on him. He can make his own opinion on that. I tell him how I feel. He tells me how he feels. I can’t really let that try to affect my game. I still have the rest of the game to play.”
This was supposed to be the season LaVine made his All-Star push. Instead, he has looked out of rhythm offensively as he has tried to adjust to the team’s five-out offense, which puts a premium on 3-point shooting and attempts at the rim.
“It’s been tough. We’re all out of rhythm. And we’re trying to find it,” LaVine said. “We’re trying to win. I think we’re a really good team. We have things we have to continue to get better at. We’re just not there yet.
“It’s tough. I have to get locked in, go from there. You control what you can control. I tried to move the ball.”
LaVine finished with 15 points on 6-for-14 shooting with three turnovers, two assists and two steals. Last month, LaVine said he was tired of people “talking (expletive)” about his defense.
“I feel I’m still taking strides. Once you make a comment like that, you’re going to get singled out and show all the mistakes that you’ve done. I’m not going to be perfect out there. I’m not saying I’m a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But I’m trying to compete,” LaVine said. “I feel I’ve done a really good job on my man. I’ve done a lot better job on rotations. I’m still working on it just like everyone else on this team is.”
On that point, LaVine and Boylen finally found some common ground.
“We are learning about our team. We are trying to push this group to a different level. We’ve put some pressure on this group. And we’re going to keep doing that. And we’re going to see how they respond,” Boylen said. “That’s the only way I know how to do it. I just have to keep pushing them to a place that they can’t take themselves. That’s what we’re trying to do. Sometimes that comes by sitting. Sometimes that comes by playing. Sometimes that comes from getting your butt kicked.”
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