Bulls

Dwyane Wade grabs leadership reins for undermanned Heat

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Dwyane Wade grabs leadership reins for undermanned Heat

The Miami Heat practiced Sunday in Chicago, and head coach Erik Spoelstra implored his leaders to do just that: lead.

Dwyane Wade got the message.

Wade and the Heat were reeling entering their Monday-evening tilt with the Bulls, certainly not the hottest team in the league but one that returned home following a wire-to-wire victory over LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland. Having dealt with injuries to four of their six leading scorers the past two weeks, Miami had lost seven of their last eight, including their last three on the road.

Again shorthanded Monday night, with point guard Goran Dragic missing his seventh straight game and center Hassan Whiteside out with an oblique strain, the undermanned and undersized Heat got their leaders to step up when they needed it most. Miami erased a nine-point Bulls lead in the second half and closed the game on a 13-5 run to earn a much needed 89-84 victory over the Bulls.

"When it’s tough we’ve got to lead more," Spoelstra said of himself, Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. "And when it gets tougher we have to lead even more. And that started yesterday in practice, with their approach in shootaround today and the approach (tonight) to bring it with a no-possessions-off mentality."

[MORE: Wade turns back the clock as Heat top Bulls]

Wade played every possession, and the Heat needed them all. He scored 28 points, his most in more than a month, and added seven rebounds and five assists. It was a throwback performance for Wade in his hometown, complete with a baseline jumper that kissed off the glass, a dunk in transition, spin moves in the post and timely passes to open teammates, a welcome sight for a team desperate for offense; the Heat hadn't topped 87 points during their four-game losing streak and averaged 86.7 points in their last eight games.

Thirteen of Wade's 21 field goal attempts came in the painted area, and he also went to the free-throw line eight times.

"That’s the biggest thing for our team, when myself, when Goran’s back, when we’re getting in the paint that allows us to be aggressive, scoring the ball and get our teammates better looks," he said. "That was the whole mindset."

A matchup of two of the NBA's best defensive teams — Miami ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, the Bulls eighth — was destined for a low-scoring affair, and the rebounding of fill-in starter Amare Stoudemire (10 in 25 minutes) and the hounding defense from rookie Justise Winslow (Jimmy Butler scored 13 points on 15 shots and just four points in the final period), who had nine rebounds and two steals, helped Miami back into the game after they scored just 12 points in the third quarter.

But in the fourth quarter it was Wade's playmaking — and leadership — that closed the door for the Heat.

He hit a pair of shots early in the period, and later connected on a free throw to tie the game at 82 apiece. Wade then drove the lane and found a baseline-cutting Winslow for a dunk to give the Heat a two-point lead.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Pau Gasol hit a jumper to tie the game with 1:14 left, but Wade came back and found Bosh open on a pick-and-pop after Gasol followed Wade to the basket with Butler. Bosh connected on the 17-footer, his 18th point to go with seven rebounds, and the Bulls couldn't answer off an inbounds play set up by a Wade deflection.

With 22 seconds left, Wade called for a screen, knowing Gasol had been switching on the wing, and drained a 21-footer over the seven-footer with 22 seconds left to put the game out of reach.

"They were calling a switch majority of the time on that play," Wade said. "I knew they were. Kind of already knew, wasn’t surprised, got a shot I was comfortable with and got it to fall."

Wade called the win "much-needed," an apt assessment for a team that two weeks ago was 21-13 and second in the Eastern Conference. In the midst of a difficult stretch where they'll play 11 of 12 away from American Airlines Arena, Monday's win could act as a springboard for a team that, when healthy, could contend for an Eastern Conference title.

Their health improved Monday, as Luol Deng returned from a brief absence after suffering an eye injury last week, scoring nine points. Beno Udrih was back in the lineup after missing four games, providing some stability at the point in the absence of Dragic. Whiteside's injury isn't considered serious, and Dragic should be back this week, meaning the Heat will be back at full-strength sooner than later as they attempt to make up ground they've lost while dealing with an undermanned roster.

"It’s the NBA. That’s the deal. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves," Spoelstra said. "The league keeps on moving, games keep on coming and you have to be able to respond to it. Ultimately these times can toughen you and you can grow from it if you approach it the right way.

"Our guys have been approaching it, but we need to play better basketball. Guys will be coming back soon enough; we see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen combined for 100 made dunks last season. But that would have been far too long of a video to make, so instead we condensed it down to their six best dunks of the season.

Which one was your favorite?

LaVine slams it home on the blocks leader (Mar. 5)

LaVine had a mini dunk contest in Indiana, but none more impressive than his dunk over Myles Turner. Robin Lopez set a high screen for LaVine, who attacked the rim instantly. LaVine got a step on Turner, who wound up leading the NBA in blocks per game, and flushed home a righty slam to tie the game early in the third quarter. LaVine finished with 27 points in the loss.

Lauri goes lefty on the Pistons (Mar. 8)

What’s more impressive than a 7-footer taking Blake Griffin off the dribble with his off-hand? That same 7-footer finishing a lefty dunk over Andre Drummond. That’s what Markkanen did early in this early March contest. Griffin got the best of Markkanen and the Bulls by the end of the night, but Markkanen started it out with a bang.

Arci saves, Otto oops, LaVine finishes (Mar. 6)

Sometimes the dunker gets the easy part. Ryan Arcidiacono had an incredible save to keep the ball in bounds in the Bulls backcourt. He tipped it right to Otto Porter who turned, took one dribble, and fed a perfect alley-oop to a streaking LaVine, who finished with an impressive one-handed slam. That it came during a nationally televised game (against Jimmy Butler) in a game the Bulls won made it all the more sweet. It was the Bulls’ best team play of the year.

Lauri’s R-rated drive past PG13 (Dec. 7)

Part of what makes Markkanen such an impressive talent is his versatility for a 7-footer. That was on full display against the Thunder in his third game back from his elbow injury. Markkanen set a screen for Zach LaVine and popped out to the 3-point line, with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George switching on to him. Markkanen caught George just the slightest bit out of position and took advantage, driving past him and in for a dunk. This one was special because 23 game minutes later, Markkanen won the game with a spinning layup over George and Steven Adams.

LaVine goes 360 for 2 on the Cavs (Nov. 10)

We take Zach LaVine for granted sometimes. There’s nothing normal about a human being so casual jumping into the air, doing a full spin, and dunking a ball through a hoop 10 feet off the ground. But LaVine did just that early in the first quarter against the Cavs. He was still rising as he threw it down for his first two points of the game. LaVine finished with 24 points on just 9 of 22 shooting, but also added eight rebounds and five assists. Don’t let the ease of the dunk fool you: This was his best of the season.

Lauri baptizes Nikola Vucevic (Dec. 21)

You knew we saved the best for last. Markkanen went way up the ladder for his best dunk of the year, slamming one home on Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. Making the slam all the more impressive was that the shot clock was winding down – Markkanen caught the ball at the logo with 4.2 seconds left on the shot clock – but he didn’t settle, instead heading straight to the rim where he met Vucevic for the slam. It was part of a monster night for Markkanen facing a defense that finished the season 8th in efficiency. He scored 32 points - at the time a season-high – on 12 of 20 shooting. The technical foul was worth it.

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Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.