The Chicago Bulls were about to get a very bad loss, which they have mostly avoided since the beginning of December.
They had blown a 16 point lead in the fourth quarter, going without a point for over 4 minutes to end regulation, allowing the Houston Rockets to come back and force overtime.
Now they found themselves down 5 with under three minutes to go in OT. It was looking like they had squandered this one away.
Then, Zach LaVine happened.
LaVine took the ball and quickly drove to the rim, finishing off an and-one layup. Then, he corralled a defensive rebound after a stop, went right down the court and knocked down a long three. Suddenly the Bulls had the lead. Then, a wild sequence had Alperen Sengun miss a layup, Cam Whitemore miss a dunk due to a contest by Nikola Vucevic, and LaVine grabbing another tough rebound. He went down, got doubled, found DeMar DeRozan at the top of the key, who swung it to Coby White for the wide open dagger three. LaVine would also later secure the rebound to seal the game, and win 124-119.
LaVine finished the game 8/15 (4/8 from 3 and 5/6 from FT), but his performance was better than that, scoring 25 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, dishing out 7 assists, and nabbing 3 steals and a block, going +15 in his minutes, second on the team behind Vucevic. He also played some solid defense, which we don’t say much about him. It was possibly his best game of the season, and that includes his 51 point game at Detroit.
The Bulls are now 3-0 since LaVine’s return, and he has done what he can to fit back in with this team that found its identity after he went out. He has played more passive since his return, trying to share the ball more and take more shots in rhythm and less in isolation without others touching the ball. He has also crashed on the glass more and played better on-ball defense than early in the season. You can tell he really wants to work his way into this team.
The idea that the Bulls were better without LaVine was just absurd. Yes, they were 5-14 before his injury in October and November, and then improved to 16-21 without him (now 19-21, so 14-7 in their last 21 in December and January). But the entire team (except for Alex Caruso) played badly in that stretch. Him missing games (as well as DeRozan missing a couple) allowed the Bulls to start running their offense more through Vucevic, allowing more fluid ball movement and getting all the role players in rhythm. It also allowed Coby White to get more shots and start blossoming into a star and MIP candidate. When DeRozan returned, the Bulls started playing him more as a post-distributor like he was in San Antonio, again allowing Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, and White to flourish. Everyone on the team started finding their shot and rhythm, which they failed to do the first 19 games of the season. Billy Donovan pivoted his offense so the Bulls would be better, running less isolation and pushing the pace a little, and got more buy-in defensively. But they started running out of steam, as they went 2-4 in their last 6 before LaVine returned, scoring less than 100 points in those losses. Now, if Donovan can continue to reintegrate LaVine into the lineup, maybe playing him more as a catch and shooter, this team could be seriously dangerous. We are already seeing LaVine buy-in, as he has played much better defense and maybe is even oversharing the ball in his 3 game stint so far, all wins.
Zach LaVine finding his form can only mean good things for the Bulls. Either he ups his trade value so the Bulls can get legitimate assets back for him despite his hefty contract, or he provides the scoring punch the Bulls were starting to need that propels them into the top 6 of the East, to make the playoffs and not simply sneak into the play-in. To me, the Bulls, now are closer to the 14-7 version of themselves than the 5-14 version. And Arturas Karnisovas and company will need to make that determination as we cross the midseason point of the season on MLK day, as the front office ponders what trades to make.