Bulls

3 takeaways: LaVine's Team USA exhibition play, Olympic role

Bulls

When the United States Men’s Basketball National Team touched down in Tokyo earlier this week, Zach LaVine was not among their ranks.

But after a brief stay in health and safety protocols, the Chicago Bulls guard is scheduled to meet the team on Thursday, practice on Friday and, provided no issues, play in their Olympic opener against France on Sunday.

“Not having Zach on the trip, we were on edge about his next test,” Kevin Durant told reporters, indicating that LaVine’s case was one of either an inconclusive test or contact tracing. “Luckily, he got through (the) protocols and he can come join us again. That was the only thing we were worried about.”

France will represent a stiff test for a U.S. group that showed signs of growing pains in their four-game exhibition slate, dropping their first two contests to Nigeria and Australia before picking up momentum-building wins over Argentina and Spain to finish 2-2.

While chemistry, conditioning and consistency have eluded this year’s Americans at large, LaVine has largely been a positive, and could be in for a larger role in the Games than initially expected.

Here are three takeaways from LaVine’s exhibition run:

 

Rising role

LaVine has made a point to enthusiastically embrace any role assigned to him by the Team USA coaching staff, whether that be scoring, facilitating, defending or simply providing energy.

“I’ll be fine with whatever role they give me. I’m just here to try to help us bring back the gold medal and continue to learn from these guys and get better. Whatever role they put me in, I think I can excel in,” he said in a media session between the team’s third and fourth exhibition games.

That mentality was apparent in Games 1 and 2 as LaVine functioned mostly as the team’s backup point guard, selectively distributing and scoring offensively while picking up opponents full-court on the defensive end.

But LaVine quickly ascended from appearing a fringe rotation player when the roster was released to a key contributor. He started each of Team USA’s last two exhibition games — once in place of a briefly-injured Jayson Tatum, once in place of Bradley Beal after the Wizards guard entered health and safety protocols. 

“First game, I really wanted to go out there and pressure the ball. (Coaches) really wanted me to try to impact the ball on defense. Pick up the energy. Pick up the pace. I feel like I did that. Took my shots when they were there,” LaVine said. 

“Second game, (I) got my spot minutes. I think they switched the lineup a little bit, just seeing different guys. In the exhibition games, that’s what we’re going to do.

“Then (in the) third game... obviously I can be a little bit more like me. Being in the starting lineup, I can still go out there and impact the ball on defense but look to be more aggressive as well.”

LaVine played 21 minutes in Game 1 and 13 in Game 2 before playing 24 and 22 respectively in contests 3 and 4. He produced his best stat lines of the slate in the latter two games:

 

 

Min

Pts

Reb

Ast

Stl

FG

3P

vs. Nigeria

21

10

2

1

1

4/8

2/6

vs. Australia

13

5

1

1

1

1/4

1/4

vs. Argentina

24

15

5

3

1

5/8

1/2

vs. Spain

22

13

2

2

0

5/8

3/5

Head coach Gregg Popovich has been adamant to not read into exhibition lineups or rotations — the team used that time to experiment with different combinations — but it stands to reason LaVine could see increased run with Beal ruled out for the rest of the Olympics.

One crucial caveat: Reinforcements are on the way in the guard and wing department in the form of Devin Booker, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, all of whom just finished competing in the NBA Finals (and all averaged more than 40 minutes per game). Whether they eat into LaVine’s minutes or the Bulls guard’s fresh legs are favored will be interesting to monitor.

Picking spots

Early results aside, the U.S. is sending an all-world roster to Tokyo. For someone like LaVine who comes from a front-facing situation in Chicago but has yet to establish himself on this stage, fitting in can’t be easy. But with the opportunities given in exhibition play, he acquitted himself well. 

 

While not perfect on the defensive end, his activity level was high; in addition to pressuring ball-handlers, LaVine battled when matched up with big men on the interior (a pitfall for all the American guards in the team’s switching scheme) to mixed results, and jumped passing lanes to collect a handful of steals across the four games.

Offensively, he had success when opportunistic as a driver, slasher and jump-shooter. Those traits flashed especially bright in the Argentina win — when he scored 15 points and powerfully posterized Argentinian forward Juan Pablo Vaulet — and the Spain game, when he capped a 13-point performance with a highlight-heavy fourth quarter:

Combine LaVine’s already-existing athleticism and scoring prowess with the fact that, having not played in the postseason, he’s one of the less worn-down NBA names in the Games, and it’s reasonable to expect more springiness moving forward.

Overall, LaVine averaged 10.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in exhibition play while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from 3-point range. He belonged.

COVID scare

Team USA underwent a bit of a COVID-19 scare in Las Vegas, beginning on Wednesday July 14. First, Beal entered health and safety protocols. Then, Jerami Grant.

And just when all appeared settled, LaVine followed suit by entering protocols on Monday in a move a USA Basketball statement said was made “out of an abundance of caution.”

Fortunately, LaVine’s situation mirrored Grant’s (who was cleared after four days and is in Tokyo) than Beal’s (who will miss the Games and was replaced on the roster by Spurs forward Keldon Johnson). LaVine missed 11 contests down the stretch of the Bulls’ season after testing positive for COVID-19, so having the virus affect another opportunity so soon would have been, for lack of a better term, a colossal bummer.

The hope is, with the team almost assembled in Japan, that this blip has been stymied. Players are expecting tight protocols — and no fans — in Tokyo, where a state of emergency was recently declared. 

Next up: LaVine and Team USA take on Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier and France on July 25 to open the Preliminary Round.

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