For a 3-minute stretch in the fourth quarter Zach LaVine caught fire. The Bulls’ do-it-all guard scored 11 points on five straight possessions, taking the Bulls from down three points to up three points. To that point in the game LaVine was 10 of 21, putting together anther nice scoring performance while trying to will the home underdog Bulls to a win.
But as has been the case far too often early in the Bulls’ season, LaVine simply ran out of gas. He hasn’t made one excuse for the incredible burden he’s been asked to lift, but it’s impossible to deny that it’s taking a toll after watching him miss the final five shots he took in Monday’s loss to the Spurs. The final attempt came on a stepback 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left that barely grazed the front of the rim.
LaVine’s final five shots – all misses – were jumpers, and 20 of his 26 attempts came outside the paint. When the Spurs weren’t blitzing him with double teams they were going under every screen, daring him to break out of his slump instead of punishing them at the rim. It worked.
But LaVine’s late struggles underscored a larger issue that may be remedied sooner than later: they’re desperately missing Lauri Markkanen.
Though LaVine has certainly played himself into the Alpha role on the Bulls, and has been guilty of some hero ball late in games, it’s not an undeserved designation.
Though LaVine’s decision to wave off a Wendell Carter Jr. screen and settle for a long 3-pointer may have felt selfish, LaVine said after the game that he guessed the Spurs would have double-teamed him off Carter’s screen, forcing him to give up the ball and leave the fate of the game in someone else’s hands.
“I’m going for the win regardless,” he said after the game. “That’s my confidence.”
But it might also be his lack of confidence in the other four players on the floor. It’d be hard to blame LaVine for not trusting his teammates to finish off a game in which he once again accounted for an incredible amount of usage: 26 field goal attempts, 6 free throws, seven assists and six turnovers in 35 minutes. It was the 12th time this season he’s topped the 20 field-goal attempt plateau in 20 games, and he’ll remain second in the NBA in usage behind only reigning MVP James Harden.
Was a fadeaway 3-pointer – LaVine had made three 3-pointers up to that point – over DeMar DeRozan a better shot than trying to get the ball to Carter – who was 4 of 11 – in the middle of the floor? LaVine kept the ball in his hands because there simply isn’t a second scorer that the Bulls can punish defenses with when they take away LaVine.
That might not be the case much longer.
Hoiberg said Markkanen will have a full contact practice with no limitations tomorrow for the first time since he sprained his right elbow on Sept. 28. The 21-year-old hasn’t faced any setbacks during his rehabilitation, including strength training, conditioning, individual workouts and most recently 2-on-2 work with teammates on Sunday.
“Tomorrow will be the next test to see if he’s ready,” Hoiberg said. “It’s just going to be a day-by-day situation.”
Hoiberg was adamant about not getting too far ahead in terms of when Markkanen may return, but if he doesn’t suffer any sort of setback after Tuesday’s practice he’ll travel to Milwaukee on Wednesday for more individual work and practice with the team in Detroit on Thursday. The traveling portion of the rehabilitation is more a product of the Windy City Bulls in Hoffman Estates being on a three-game road trip through Dec. 1.
It’s good news whenever a rebuilding team gets its 21-year-old budding star back from injury. But nothing Markkanen brings to the table will be as important as the burden he takes off LaVine, who is third in the NBA in field goal attempts per game. On Monday night LaVine could have played a two-man game with Markkanen, who popped out to the 3-point line and made a Spurs defense decide if they wanted to leave Markkanen open or let LaVine attack David Bertans 1-on-1.
For now, it’ll be LaVine early and often. But help is on the way in the form of Markkanen. In addition to giving LaVine a consistent secondary scorer for the first time this year, it’ll also likely bump Parker back to the second unit and help a Bulls bench that scored 14 points on Monday after tallying 15 on Saturday.
The trickle-down effect is real. With the Bulls sitting at 5-16, Markkanen isn’t going to come back and lead the Bulls back to the postseason. They won’t flirt with .500, even when Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis return. But at the very least it sets in motion the next step of the Bulls’ rebuild.
And if it can take some of the burden off LaVine, like it would have Monday night, everyone from the top of the organization to the bottom will be better for it.