He’s far too competitive a player and far too patient a teammate to use it as any sort of excuse, but if the past six games are any indication it’s not something he had to admit to be seen: Zach LaVine is tired.
The Bulls shooting guard had another high-volume performance in their Monday night loss to the Dallas Mavericks. And in another 41 minutes LaVine once again struggled with his shot and made a handful of careless turnovers that doomed a Bulls offense that’s asking as much as they can from him.
Facing a Mavericks team ranked 24th in defensive efficiency and missing perhaps its best perimeter defender in Wesley Matthews, LaVine shot 8 of 23 and missed all six 3-point attempts, finishing with 26 points and the seven turnovers. With his most recent inefficient outing, LaVine is now shooting 44.8 percent from the field.
“I’m tired, I’m alright. Doing everything I can,” he said. “I’m making mistakes, missing shots that are real easy. Didn’t hit any threes today. I’ve got easy things I can do better at. I always ask more of myself but I’m doing everything I can.”
LaVine’s streak of scoring 20 or more points reached 14 games, the second longest Bulls streak behind Michael Jordan, but it came in far different fashion from earlier in the season. LaVine, clearly the focal point of a Mavericks defense that rushed him, blitzed him and pushed him out on the perimeter whenever possible, missed his first five shots, threw up two uncharacteristic air balls and was just 2 of 14 outside the painted area.
True, he went to the free throw line 11 more times and made 10 to help offset the ugly shooting. But it wasn’t enough on a Bulls team that simply can’t find a consistent second scorer and seems to feed off both LaVine’s prowess and his struggles. The Bulls struggled on Monday as LaVine did, shooting below 40 percent, making just eight 3-pointers and finishing with more turnovers (17) than assists (16).
It was yet another performance to add to a troubling trend for both LaVine and the Bulls. In his last six games LaVine is shooting 50 for 134 (37.3 percent) and that includes a 13-for-25 outing against the Knicks. Take out that performance and he’s shooting 33 percent. He also has 27 turnovers and 27 assists and is shooting 25.6 percent from beyond the arc.
The Bulls, not coincidentally, haven’t fared much better. They ranked 16th in the NBA in offensive efficiency through eight games (108.3), but since the Golden State debacle have plummeted to 29th (100.3), and their last three games have come against bottom-six defenses (New Orleans, 25th; Cleveland, 29th; Dallas, 24th). The Bulls are 2-4 during this stretch, winning games in which LaVine shot well in New York and the one-point win over a 1-10 Cavaliers team.
Though LaVine has had eight- and seven-turnover nights during the stretch, he also had two combined turnovers in 77 minutes against the Pelicans and Cavaliers. LaVine needs to shoot through his slump because the Bulls offense requires it, but he’s also making the right play more often than not. He had three first-quarter assists on Monday when the Bulls offense looked its sharpest.
“I give Zach a lot of credit for as much volume as he has on the offensive end right now, as much as we’re playing through him, he is growing on making the simple play and getting better with that. It needs to continue. He needs to make the right play.”
It’s a tall order to ask of him. Off nights from LaVine, and even slumps like the one he’s in now, would be fine if issue if Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis or any combination of the three were available. But he’s averaging more than 40 minutes per game in that stretch and continues to rank among the NBA’s highest usage rates.
Regression from his early-season performances when he shot 51 percent from the field in eight games to begin the year was expected. That early stretch was a healthy, rested LaVine, not an aberration. What we’re in the middle of is a tired LaVine taking on a ridiculous burden for an offense that needs all of him every night. When he doesn’t perform, so too does a Bulls offense that got 6 of 17 shooting from Jabari Parker and seven points from Wendell Carter Jr.
Reinforcements are still weeks away. For now, LaVine will need to pick and choose his spots, make the right play and yet still find a way to score near 30 points each night. It’s a lot to ask, but he’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s a tough situation,” LaVine said of the defensive attention he’s receiving, “but I still have to be aggressive. It’s more me figuring out when’s the right time to attack and when’s the right time to just get off the ball.”