Jim Boylen once worked for the Rockets. Now, the Bulls are playing like them.
OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration, obviously. For starters, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are proven All-Stars, while Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are trying to get there. The Rockets also clearly have an established offensive pecking order, while the Bulls’ equal opportunity system has produced some moments of drifting for LaVine and Markkanen.
And no team takes more 3-pointers or field goals earlier in the shot clock than the Rockets, who also only trail the Timberwolves in pace.
But after detailing his desire to break the Bulls’ offense down before building it back up, Boylen now has the personnel for his plan. The Bulls rank 15th in pace, eighth in fast-break points and, if shooters start matching their career numbers, could become a consistent 3-point threat.
As of Friday morning, the Bulls trailed only the Rockets and Bucks in 3-point attempts and led the league in attempts less than 5 feet. Somewhere, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey nods approvingly.
“We’re trying to do that style,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’ve done a good job of taking less (mid-range shots). I still shoot the ones that are open. But it’s the style of play we want, and we’re going to work it.”
The Bulls rank tied for 22nd in 3-point percentage at 33.3 percent, just ahead of the Rockets’ 33 percent. At 6.3 attempts, LaVine is shooting the second-most of his career per game and connecting on 38.6 percent, above his career mark of 37.4 percent.
Markkanen entered this season as a career 36.2 percent 3-point shooter and has connected at just 30.4 percent this season. Otto Porter Jr., who is sidelined indefinitely with a sprained left foot, entered the season as a career 40.5 percent 3-point shooter and has recently overcome a slow start to pull to 40 percent.
“We have really good 3-point shooters on the team, LaVine said. “If you start slow eventually the numbers will average out, get you where you’re supposed to be at. I feel like I’m shooting the ball pretty well. Otto, before he hurt himself, got really hot in that Atlanta game. His shot started to come on. Lauri made a couple threes, so it’s picking up.’’
What also needs to pick up is LaVine and Markkanen forming a consistent 1-2 punch. The Rockets pretty much know what they’re going to get from Harden and Westbrook every night. Too often it seems if LaVine dominates, Markkanen doesn’t. And vice versa.
In theory, the duo should work perfectly — two players with shooting range and a broad offensive package. Drive and kick. Pick and roll. Pick and pop. You name it, LaVine and Markkanen should have the offensive chops to achieve it.
“It seems like a match made in heaven. We just got to be able to be consistent together and both be dominant on the court at the same time,” LaVine said. “We know we can be a dynamic duo, with our shooting, our athletic ability to get to the hoop. We just have to put it into the game. We’ve seen it at points in the game sometimes---last year, this year---but we’ve just got to do it consistently.”
And in the fourth quarter. Every opponent knows the ball will be in the hands of Harden and Westbrook the most come crunch time. Harden’s fourth-quarter usage rate sits at 41.7 and Westbrook’s 29.4. LaVine is at 30.5, while Markkanen is at 23.1.
LaVine has been efficient in the fourth. His 53 points in the final period ranks 14th in the NBA. Harden’s 69 fourth-quarter points ranks fourth, while Westbrook’s 59 points sits 10th.
“I'm not trying to force too many things. Obviously when I feel like I need to try to take over, be aggressive, I do that and I feel like that's the right thing,” LaVine said. “I know I'm still pretty high up in fourth-quarter scoring. I feel like I've been pretty efficient. I haven't been as efficient as I was last year, but it's early on in the season. If I can get my field-goal percentage up about six percentage points, I'll be where I was last year. Just continue to work on little things.”
Indeed, part of the responsibility of establishing an offensive pecking order falls on the player. Markkanen in particular is more effective late when he runs the floor hard or rebounds early. Players have to earn teammates’ trust and aggressively pursue shots.
For now, Boylen wants LaVine to focus on being a more complete player.
“I thought Zach was tremendous the other night,” Boylen said of LaVine’s performance in Atlanta. “He let it come to him. He had (four) assists, five deflections and two steals. And we won. I’ve been asking him to be a complete player. And, to me, he’s working towards that. And he’s working hard.”
LaVine only scored 10 points on 10 shots that game but engaged defensively and didn’t force matters. That the game was a blowout and his offensive aggressiveness wasn’t needed in the fourth quarter helped.
“As long as we get the win, obviously, I'm cool with it,” LaVine said of 10 shots. “I'm going to continue the way I'm supposed to. I feel like I played the right way. I got my teammates involved. I played really good defense. I know we'll need my scoring against Houston, though, so I'll be aggressive.”
That’s the right approach as well.
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