There will come a time – perhaps sooner than later, given how the Bulls’ rebuild has gone in Year 1 – when Zach LaVine takes over and wins a close game. The 21-year-old already boasts quite the resume that goes far beyond his Slam Dunk Contest trophies, including a 40-point game, and has a knack for scoring that made him the key piece of June’s Jimmy Butler trade.
But more than 11 months away from game action has taken its toll on LaVine. He’s clearly still shaking off rust – whether he wants to admit it or not – and hasn’t regained the form that made him a 19-point per game scorer in just his third NBA season a year ago. There’s no rush for the 18-31 Bulls, but in the short-term they could have used that old LaVine on Friday night, going down to the wire against a Lakers team that had won seven of nine games.
Instead LaVine struggled throughout, stalling a Bulls offense that appeared stagnant at times without the help of key distributor Kris Dunn. LaVine attacked the rim more frequently in the second half but couldn’t finish. And his two missed free throws in the closing minutes could have pulled the Bulls within a possession. The final numbers saw LaVine go 3-for-17 with 10 points, three rebounds and one assist in 25 minutes. But it somehow felt worse than that.
Accordingly, he didn’t mince words after the game, but also didn’t overreact to a bad stretch.
“I felt good. I just missed a lot of easy shots. That’s the way it goes sometimes. I’ve got to be better,” LaVine said. “I sucked tonight. That’s the way the ball goes, but I can handle that.”
LaVine, like the rest of the Bulls, find themselves in a precarious spot without Dunn. With one less shot creator defenses are able to key in scorers like LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic. And though Jerian Grant finished with eight assists and no turnovers, the ball movement is markedly different when it’s Dunn initiating offense; the Bulls had two assists in the third quarter and just four in the fourth before the game was out of reach.
LaVine relied on jumpers in the first half, with four of his six attempts coming outside the paint. He went 1-for-6. In the third quarter he hit a pair of unassisted jumpers to open the half, including a 3-pointer, that got the Lakers’ attention. LaVine began attacking more, though he wound up finishing 0-for-5 in the paint, and 0-for-4 at the rim. The Lakers defense, which has improved to 12th in efficiency thanks to their recent hot stretch, stifled LaVine. In his third round of fourth-quarter minutes he stayed cold while Nikola Mirotic and Denzel Valentine shot them back in it. He missed all three shots in the final stanza, and missed both free throws with 1:14 left and the Bulls down 101-97.
He refused to blame the struggles on conditioning, a good sign for Bulls fans and team doctors.
“Yeah, (my legs) are coming and it’ getting to that point where I just need to be consistent with them,” he said. “I know it’s a process with it but it gets frustrating at times and you just want to smooth it out.”
Admittedly it’s been more bad than good for LaVine three weeks into his debut with the Bulls. Much of that is to be expected, but he hasn’t exactly met complete expectations. He came out of the gates firing, hitting his first shot as a Bull and averaging 16 points on 12 of 21 shooting in two games. Since then he’s mixed in two solid games with a trio of poor ones, the worst of which came Friday. The playmaking hasn’t come yet – he has 16 assists in seven games – which becomes more evident when Dunn is out and Markkanen/Mirotic are missing shots – they went a combined 8-for-23 on Friday.
Decision making aside – something Hoiberg alluded to during pregame availability – Hoiberg was happy with LaVine’s shots. And without Dunn in the lineup late, Hoiberg put the ball in LaVine’s hands to initiate offense down the stretch, despite his poor shooting.
He has to take good shots,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he got it going, we played through him a little bit the beginning of the third, but other than that he just couldn’t get anything to fall. And he had wide-open ones, I promise you. As we go on with this, as he gets his legs, he’s gonna knock those down.”
That said, in a rebuilding year that has gone far better than expected (depending on who you ask), the most important factoid to pull from Friday is that LaVine is healthy. He hasn’t had any setbacks, hasn’t been forced to miss any games – the Bulls don’t have a back-to-back – and his elite bounce, athleticism and strength appear to all be there. He simply didn’t have it going Friday.
And those who see him in practice every day – his teammates – know what LaVine is capable of, and that it’s coming sooner than later. He showed spurts with his early third-quarter scoring and the game comes naturally to him. Though the spotlight will be on him each night, especially when the team struggles as a whole and can’t finish late, patience will pay off for LaVine and the Bulls.
“He’s a great player so I’m not even worried about the shots he’s missing or whatever is going on with him,” Valentine said. “He’s going to figure it out, he’s a great player, he deserves to be in this moment. It’s going to take time for us to click a little bit, though.”