Losses will happen, even to teams who are perceived to be pushovers. The Bulls dropping their first game of the season to the Charlotte Hornets isn’t the issue here — it’s how they managed to do it which was concerning.
Building a double-digit lead with six minutes left should’ve been enough for a Bulls win. While there were many errors throughout the entirety of the game to isolate and pick apart, there were defining possessions in the fourth quarter.
And similarly this applies to the Bulls go-to player in those moments, Zach LaVine. LaVine followed up a dominant preseason with an overall dud in his season debut, but let’s look at several odd decisions in the closeout possessions.
As is always the case with LaVine, it’s often the defensive side of the ball where we witness him at his worst. It’s something he is tired of people talking about, but that chatter will continue so long as his off-ball defense remains aloof, just as it was during the Hornets’ late game-winning run.
From the jump, the Hornets cooked the Bulls’ poor perimeter defense, setting a franchise record in 3-point makes in the process. The Bulls paid little attention to half-court help rotations, but also were poor in transition, as showcased by LaVine above.
As unforgivable as allowing so many wide-open jumpers (no matter the unlikelihood of Charlotte converting quite so many), so too is this offensive possession coming out of a timeout.
I’ve been a noted Jim Boylen critic in the past, but not even I can believe he drew that shot up (the Bulls actually ran some good stuff out of timeouts in this game.) Let’s assume LaVine called an audible on the 3-point attempt.
Fortunately, the Bulls’ dominance on the offensive glass last night allowed for a second-chance opportunity for LaVine. While heading toward the basket instead of settling for another jump shot was the right decision, he chose to avoid contact, leaving only a forced shot at the rim.
After this, through a series of possessions ending in either turnovers or poor looks, the Bulls failed to score a point for four straight minutes, and a 10-point advantage vanished.
Still, with 2:24 left on the clock, LaVine and the Bulls had ample time to set up a creative offensive set. This wasn’t one of those.
To be fair to LaVine, he wasn’t alone in wasting clock — receiving the ball back with only five seconds left to bail out a stalled offense is less than ideal. But as the team’s best and most dynamic on-ball option, recognising and managing the game situation falls on him. Choosing to drive toward the basket and ignoring Lauri Markkanen popping out high, only to float under the basket and kick out to a non-shooter in Kris Dunn, highlights a lack of awareness.
You can live with such offensive blunders if those errors can be redeemed on defense. But as was the case earlier, the following play saw LaVine again lose touch with his opponent, and the Hornets gaining another open look from distance.
I don’t understand what LaVine was trying to do here. He was directly responsible for Dwayne Bacon, guarding him out on the perimeter. For some reason, despite his opponent being one pass away from the ball, LaVine decided to help inside, even though Tomas Satoransky and Wendell Carter had adequately curtailed the drive. Worse yet, he was caught between his man (Bacon) and the corner shooter (P.J. Washington) with no real way of closing out to either.
This is the best I can come up with to defend LaVine’s decisions here: maybe LaVine thought Markkanen would follow Washington in the corner, and when that didn’t happen, he decided to (loosely) cover the Hornets rookie, only to leave his man wide open. Even if this is true, there was zero communication between LaVine and Markkanen.
As bad as that defensive possession was, LaVine and the Bulls were only down 126-123 with 11 seconds left. Basic maths suggests taking a three. LaVine didn’t take a three.
Credit needs to be given to the Hornets’ defenders for staying home on the Bulls’ shooters — they knew the Bulls were hunting a three and it’s why LaVine opted to walk into a semi-contested layup. Again, though, taking the two with so little time remaining (and the team with no timeouts) instead of launching a three signals a lack of game awareness.
If it seems like I’m picking LaVine here, it’s because I am. If LaVine is to be the focal point of the offense, most notably in the closing moments of a game, his decision-making needs to drastically improve. As we saw against the Hornets, such wayward decisions on both sides of the ball can dictate the result.