As random and critical the performances from the support players were, the Bulls don’t chalk up their first win of the season without the continued efforts of blossoming star Zach LaVine.
He brought this game home, including on defense. Yes, you read that correctly. Such a statement sounds nuts given the highlight plays he’s had guarding opponents throughout his career, but the Bulls may not get a chance to win the game without LaVine coming up with a timely defensive stop.
A game after questioning whether the Bulls were getting him the ball enough, there was no doubt in this one as the ball was in LaVine’s hands for entire final 3 minutes. It was isolation-heavy and with mixed results but effective enough, outscoring the Hornets in that time by the critical 2 points required for this victory.
There were some shot selections where LaVine looked to be settling from long-range, getting bailed out of an airball by Wendell Carter’s rebound (though Carter missed both free throws...) and then this choice a bit later:
The Hornets have not been able to stop LaVine from getting to the rim. Hard to criticize him when he's playing so well this half but man, he should not have settled for this jumper. pic.twitter.com/0Fnx59OE0y— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) October 25, 2018
But with the Hornets now having the ball with 4.9 seconds remaining, LaVine’s on-ball pressure on Kemba Walker forced the star Hornet into an untimely turnover.
Back with the ball in his hands to close the game out, we saw what has made the new version of LaVine so effective: A new-found intent to get to the rim.
Making a pair of free throws (with the second one going in even when he was trying to miss it and run out the clock), the Bulls would go up two, enough to claim their first win of the young season.
Free throws were a huge plus for LaVine in this game, going 11-12 from the stripe which was a career high in both attempts and makes. Always a great shooter from the line, he’s now ratcheting up his trips there to the level of the NBA’s great scorers. He’s literally doubling his free-throw rate (attempts per FGA) this year, from 23% in his first 3 seasons to nearly 47% this year.
He also showed some nice playmaking skills in this game, something that the team will look to him more and more with Dunn out. This has historically not worked, but out of necessity and with room for development in mind, isn’t a bad thing to be trying again to make LaVine a more complete player. If you look at the Cam Payne show from last night, you’ll notice a lot of great work from LaVine in setting him up.
Finishing the game with 32 points, four rebounds and five assists, it was the most complete offensive performance we’ve seen from LaVine thus far in his Bulls career.
And as mentioned there was even improvement defensively, though still you see his issues where he got caught ball watching.
That's disappointing. It came right after a really solid defensive possession from LaVine too where he picked up Kemba from 94 feet, then got through four screens to help contest the shot. pic.twitter.com/GOUkIrNAi5— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) October 25, 2018
Holistically, though, you have to really stretch to complain about what LaVine is doing right now — he joins Michael Jordan as the only Bulls to open a season with four consecutive 30-point performances. Anytime you can be mentioned in such rarified air, you must being doing something well.