The Chicago Bulls nearly blew a 28-point lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder if not for Zach LaVine.
With the Bulls up by a point, 108-107, with 9.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter, LaVine stepped onto the free throw line and calmly knocked down two free throws to extend the lead to three points. On the ensuing possession, he covered Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who, despite shooting an atrocious 27.9 percent from behind the three-point line entering this contest, attempted a side-step 3-pointer that bounced off the rim. Javonte Green made one of his two free throws after that, but those were just the finishing touches in Chicago’s 111-110 win over OKC.
A win is a win, but looking at the bigger picture, the Bulls are elated that LaVine has returned after missing five games due to an injury on his left knee, the same one that had an ACL tear back in the 2016-2017 season. In his entire career, the 2021 NBA All-Star has only played 82 games once, and it would be tough to lose him now, especially as Chicago is in the midst of their best run since Tom Thibodeau’s last season with the Bulls back in 2014-2015.
With LaVine out, Chicago’s opponents knew that the Bulls’ offense would primarily operate from inside the 3-point line. Chicago’s 3-point makes fell in the last four games sans LaVine, and they only made five 3-pointers in a 114-95 loss to the Orlando Magic.
Against the Thunder, LaVine finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block, but his return also coincided with the Bulls knocking down 15 3-pointers. Beyond those numbers, the Olympic gold medallist’s comeback opened things up for Nikola Vucevic (team-high 26 points) and Ayo Dosunmu (career-high 24 points), among others.
A pick-and-roll run by LaVine and Vucevic is certainly different than when the latter runs it with Chicago’s other perimeter players and the fact that it is an available option on offense now that LaVine is back is certainly on the minds of opposing defenses. It doesn’t have to be deployed time and time again, but when the defense assumes a pick-and-roll might be run, their adjustments will leave players open in certain areas. Even if Coby White is shooting a brutal 2-of-12 from the field and is wide open in the corner, all it takes is one shot to alter the complexion of the game.
On the season, LaVine’s averages of 24.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists per game are slightly lower than his All-Star campaign last year, but he continues to be efficient from the field and the free throw line (career-high 86.8 percent on 4.7 free throw attempts per game). This type of consistency will be of value especially when both Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso are sidelined due to surgeries to repair a torn meniscus in the left knee and a fractured right wrist, respectively. LaVine’s usage rate of 29.4 percent will definitely go up and he will now have to take on more lead guard duties with Dosunmu, White, and DeMar DeRozan, who sat out the game against Oklahoma City after scoring 41 points in 38 minutes in the loss to the Magic.
The timing of LaVine’s return could not have been better, not only because the Bulls lost four of their last five games, but also because they lost their grasp of the top spot in the Eastern Conference to the surging Miami Heat. However, Chicago can make up some ground as only three of the Bulls’ next 10 games will come against teams that have a winning record. It does come with a caveat as five of those 10 teams (Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets, Phoenix Suns, and Philadelphia 76ers) would be at least in the play-in tournament if the regular season ended today.
This will also allow LaVine to ease himself back in but minute restrictions and some DNPs will likely be on the table considering his medical history and how tricky knee injuries can be. The earlier they secure a favorable position in terms of playoff seeding, the easier it will be to decide whether to rest LaVine or not.
It goes without saying that the Chicago Bulls missed Zach LaVine over the last five games. The numbers are always welcome, but his presence certainly opens up opportunities for his teammates. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before the NBA Playoffs begin, but having an in-form LaVine sooner rather than later is more ideal in a competitive race at the top of the East.