Bulls

Zach LaVine accepting of, thriving in heavy shouldering of Bulls offense

Zach LaVine accepting of, thriving in heavy shouldering of Bulls offense

No team has asked its go-to option to shoulder a bigger load than what the Bulls have asked of Zach LaVine. Granted, the 23-year-old scorer was going to be asked to do what he did best after signing a lofty four-year, $78 million deal in July. But where LaVine was expected to have Lauri Markkanen by his side as the Robin to his Batman, and expected to have Kris Dunn running the point to let LaVine work off the wing, neither has been the case.

Markkanen remains sidelined with an elbow sprain, while Dunn is at least a month away from returning after spraining his MCL last month. What it’s done is put LaVine in a situation where he’s been asked to both run the offense as the primary ball handler and shoulder a massive scoring load that – while he’s certainly enjoying – isn’t ideal for ay team.

Then again, the results past the Bulls’ 3-9 record have been outstanding. LaVine enters the weekend fourth in the league in scoring and is setting career highs in points, field goal percentage, 3-pointers, free throw attempts, free throw percentage and assists. He’s been an offensive machine for a Bulls team missing its projected second and third leading scorers (Markkanen and Dunn), Sixth Man (Bobby Portis) and its best 3-point shooter from a year ago (Denzel Valentine).

“I’ll do whatever I gotta do to try to put points on the board or help us win,” LaVine said before Friday’s practice at the Advocate Center. “If that’s scoring, facilitating, rebounding, whatever it is. It’s scoring for right now. I’ll continue to do that until we need something else.”

The fact that LaVine’s efficiency has maintained is made doubly impressive when considering that only Giannis Antetokounmpo, considered by many to be the current MVP frontrunner, and Russell Westbrook have a higher usage rate than LaVine’s 32.9 mark.

A year ago, thinking of LaVine as ranking third in the league in usage would have been a nightmare. He took tough shots, settled for jumpers and was a woeful passer. But it’s incredible what a healthy offseason and newly found confidence will do for a player’s game.

LaVine currently ranks 15th in drives per game (13.9) and of the 17 players averaging 13 or more drives per game, LaVine ranks first in drawing fouls (9.6 percent of the time), fifth in turnover percentage (4.8 percent of the time) and point percentage (he produces points on 62.9% of his drives). He’s going to the line 2.3 times per game on those drives, fifth best among those drivers and just a slight tick below James Harden’s 2.4 attempts.

Through four seasons, 28.1 percent of LaVine’s attempts were taken between 0 and 3 feet of the basket. This season, that number has skyrocketed to 39.8 percent, and doesn’t take into account all the free throws LaVine has drawn. The Bulls have singlehandedly won two games – Charlotte and New York – thanks to LaVine attacking the basket and drawing fouls in the final seconds.

“He’s really improved in the area of attacking the basket,” Hoiberg said. “You can see his free throw numbers are up, his finishing is better at the rim, he’s not settling for as many shots as he did a year ago and I think a lot of that has to do with the confidence that he has with his health.

“Zach is in a great rhythm on the offensive end.”

LaVine is shooting a career-best 46.1 percent from the field, nearly 8 percentage points than last year’s ugly run, and that number should only improve as Dunn, Markkanen and Portis work their way back from injury. Until it does, LaVine will be asked to not only stay aggressive but also, at times, take difficult shots.

Case in point, LaVine buried three jumpers late in the fourth quarter of the Bulls’ eventual win over the Knicks on Monday that Hoiberg laughed were “not great shots.” But such is life for the Bulls right now, and with the aggressive drives to the basket will come some off-balanced jumpers that produce some ugly results.

Only the Hornets have a larger discrepancy between their leading scorer and No. 2 scorer (Kemba Walker is averaging 14.6 more points than Malik Monk; LaVine is averaging 12.6 points more than Jabari Parker).

It’s a balance the Bulls will have to find between good shots and staying in games. For now, it’s tilting toward the latter.

“It is a little bit of a balance when you've got a guy who's playing with that kind of confidence on the offensive end, plus we understand he's a guy that has to have big nights for us,” Hoiberg said. “He's grown into that role, it's one that he's never been in before, but he seems very comfortable in it. Being the go-to-guy, it's an adjustment, but we like the way Zach has handled it so far.”

Lauri Markkanen inspires, then fades in emblematic loss to Warriors

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USA Today

Lauri Markkanen inspires, then fades in emblematic loss to Warriors

When Lauri Markkanen is on, it's inspired. And he was 'on' in the first half of the Bulls' eventual 100-98 loss to the league-worst (entering the night) 4-19 Warriors. 

In fact, there were stretches when it appeared he just might save the Bulls from their second (second!) loss of the season to Golden State.

See: the opening five minutes of the second quarter. The Warriors, trailing 28-23 at the end of the first period, were on a 16-5 run. You could call it a spurt, but it felt more like an avalanche. The Bulls' bench had gone cold, Ky Bowman and Omari Spellman were raining hellfire and the United Center was despondent.

Then, Markkanen awoke. It all started on a pick-and-pop action between Markkanen and Denzel Valentine. With the Warriors flat-footed and scrambling to rotate, Markkanen reeled in a bounce-pass from Valentine at the top of the key and rifled a side-armed bullet to Daniel Gafford, awaiting free and clear in the paint. This is a delightful play, and a rare one for Markkanen this season:

Two straight 3-pointers (one on another pick-and-pop possession in concert with Zach LaVine) followed that, then a cutting dunk to knot the game 41-41. Markkanen finished the half leading the game in points (17), field goals made and attempted (shooting 7-for-11) and 3-pointers, on which he was 3-for-6. The Bulls were ahead 51-50. Too close for comfort, yes, (especially for this team) but in the moment, that Markkanen sequence felt like a true leadership moment. He was carrying the team.

Zach LaVine, after all, hadn't scored until the under two minutes until the half.

"I was getting good looks, my teammates were finding me, and I was getting to the rim," Markkanen said. "No matter how they were guarding me, we found something that worked for us."

Markkanen then proceeded to not score for over 25 minutes of game action, totaling three points in the second half on 1-for-6 shooting. After the game, Jim Boylen was unsure of what exactly changed for Markkanen of the second, but the taste in his mouth was evidently sour.

"I don't know. I mean, sometimes people adjust? They adjust to a guy who's got it going and they change. Sometimes the ball doesn't go in," Boylen said. "That's the game."

Boylen added that he liked the look Markkanen got on a 3-pointer late in the fourth that, at the time, tied the game 97-97. It was the only shot Markkanen made after the 4:48 mark of the second quarter.

"The team goes on spurts," Markkanen offered as explanation. "We go on little runs and they go on runs. That's how the game is, and I feel like we did a good job feeding the hot guy. When Zach got going in the second half, we did the same thing, so... I think that's part of it."

LaVine scored 21 of his 22 points in the game over a seven-minute stretch between the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third. For the third time this season (and second time in three games), LaVine and Markkanen each tallied 20 points. It rang hollow.

So did the team's end-of-fourth-quarter execution, an area they excelled in over the two-game win streak they rode into this one. LaVine, again, controlled the majority of the team's crunch-time possessions, but this time, the team fell short — mustering only 15 points in the final period.

"We could've executed, not turned the ball over," Markkanen said. "Simple plays. Obviously everybody's going to look at the last play, but it's not about that. We had some good looks before that that we gotta make the plays that we need to finish the game off."

Markkanen committed two turnovers and bricked a forced, late-shot clock jumper in the final two minutes. "I could have done a better job making the plays I needed," he conceded.

Ultimately, the Bulls go as LaVine and Markkanen do. Their play reflected the team's generally polarizing offense. After two games of fresher air, Markkanen — 'back' for a half, a leader on the floor — is, too.

"You know, that's part of the learning," Boylen said. "People adjust in the second half to what you did in the first, and you gotta adjust again."

What that adjustment will be remains to be seen.

Bulls provide more head-scratching moments down stretch of winnable game

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USA Today

Bulls provide more head-scratching moments down stretch of winnable game

The Warriors still have a dynasty when they play the Bulls. Forty percent of their victories are against coach Steve Kerr’s former employer.

And with a chance to win three games for the first time since February of last season, the Bulls came up small in the big moments yet again.

They failed to score a field goal the final 3 minutes, 35 seconds of a head-scratching 100-98 loss to the Warriors, managing just 15 points while getting outscored by eight in the final period.

On a night Zach LaVine did plenty right, the uber-confident guard made an unconventional decision at the end. With the Bulls down two, he waved off a Wendell Carter Jr. screen and went for the win, missing a 3-pointer that he rose to take with 3.3 seconds left.

Both LaVine and coach Jim Boylen offered plausible explanations for the isolation, saying they didn’t want perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green switching on to LaVine in a pick-and-roll. However, Boylen did concede “the timing of it maybe could be better” since most teams try to give themselves a chance at a tip-in or putback off a miss in those situations.

A defiantly confident LaVine didn’t even concede that. The Warriors’ first contact with the eventually secured defensive rebound came with 0.6 left on the clock.

“I just wish I made it,” LaVine said when asked if he would’ve liked to take the shot earlier. “I think I got a good look at it. I’ll take it again. I think I’ll make it too.”

Boylen defended LaVine through several questions about the shot.

“I like the fact that the ball is in Zach’s hands. I believe in Zach at the end of the game. He can make that shot. He has made it before,” Boylen said. “The timing of it maybe could be better. It’s a rhythm thing. It’s how you feel. He has done a good job of that. I believe in him in that situation. And [Friday night] it just didn’t go down.”

The missed shot obscured LaVine’s positives. While he did have five turnovers, he had early assists without trying to force offense, not scoring until 1:27 left in the first half.

Then came one of those patented LaVine scoring outbursts. He scored 21 of his 22 points in 7:39 and finished with six assists and six rebounds.

“Obviously, I didn’t want to give them another possession. I was either going to take it to the hoop and try to get fouled or go for the game,” LaVine said of the final sequence. “It was supposed to be me and Lauri in the pick-and-roll but Draymond was being that guy to switch and I didn’t want to deal with him in the pick-and-roll. I rejected it. I looked at the clock and it was three seconds I think. I had a good look. I thought it was good.”

The final points of the game came on a Green alley-oop to Glenn Robinson III for a dunk with 63 seconds left. The Bulls blitzed D’Angelo Russell, who slipped a pass to Green through the double team.

“That’s what we felt was the best situation for us,” Boylen said. “Get the ball out of DLo’s hands and make someone else make a play.”

Dunn posted his league-high eighth game with three or more steals and had been hounding Russell all game, helping limit him to seven points.

Boylen used a five-man substitution — don’t worry; four of the incoming players were starters — with 8:32 left and the Bulls up four. Coby White and Denzel Valentine had been rolling, which is why Boylen fielded a question about his decision.

“I just wanted to get my starters back in the game and close the game out,” Boylen said.

Boylen drew criticism in the home collapse against the Lakers for not bringing his starters back. Ultimately, most coaches live and die with their starters. And they’re the ones who coughed up the four-point lead.

Valentine actually even got ejected from the bench 42 seconds later for drawing his second technical foul.

“I had it rolling, but Coach made a sub. I wish I would’ve been available. I watched the fourth and I think I could’ve been useful the rest of the fourth,” Valentine said. “I just have to learn from these types of things and just move on.”

Valentine said it’s the first time he has been ejected from a game in any sport at any level. He drew his first technical foul in a double-technical situation while jawing with Omari Spellman. An animated Valentine scored in double figures for just his second time this season and is clearly relishing reappearing in the rotation.

“Two hard teams playing basketball, and it got a little carried away,” Valentine said. “My passion has been taken to the next level because I was out for a year. I literally live for basketball. This is what I love to do.”

Boylen adamantly pointed to progress with ball movement, and cited work ethic in practice and care factor for why he believes longer stretches of consistency will follow.

The painful fourth quarter offered a counter argument. In those moments, the Bulls looked like a young team that doesn't know how to close out games.

“I think we beat ourselves,” LaVine said.

He wouldn’t get much argument there.

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