The Bulls are back at it Wednesday in the United Center against the Phoenix Suns after a fortuitous three-day break. It proved an appropriate time after three very bad times, the trifecta of blowouts against the East's top teams. So Zach LaVine thought about Matt Thornton.
Thornton, some will recall, was a pretty good, hard throwing White Sox reliever who had a nice career, a 3.41 earned run average over 13 years. But for one week in 2011, he was the Bulls of last week, in a sense, a week in which you could barely watch. Thornton blew four consecutive saves, though he still went on to an effective season and 62 appearances.
The Bulls know the feeling.
"You can't let games of the past compile," LaVine was saying at practice earlier this week. "I always take it like a closing pitcher. Sometimes you give up a walk-off home run, but you've got to go out there and pitch the next day. That's how I see it. You can't dwell on the past. You've got to continue to get better every day and move forward with the day you have in hand."
And so that's the assignment for the Bulls and especially LaVine, who sat out the Toronto loss Saturday with the flu. LaVine admits he probably should not have played in Milwaukee Friday when the Bulls blew a 22-point lead and lost by 19. But he understood how decimated the team is with injuries and tried to push forward.
"I'll play Wednesday for sure," LaVine said. "I played versus Milwaukee and I think that's just what really ran me into the ground. You want to be out there. I've already missed enough games in my career. I don't want to miss any games. So you feel for them."
The Bulls continued to absorb those blows, however, as the team revealed Monday Denzel Valentine will need ankle surgery and likely is out for the rest of the season.
It's left LaVine to attempt to prop up a team missing its starting point guard, starting power forward, starting small forward in perhaps Valentine and top reserve at a time a rookie is starting at center and a recovering two-time ACL surgery victim now is at small forward. It's put a target on LaVine like no other in the NBA, and the effects have been obvious.
You stop Zach LaVine, you pretty much beat the Bulls.
Of course, you could beat the Bulls a lot of times while not stopping Zach LaVine with so many players injured.
But in not so much of a small sample anymore, LaVine with the Bulls closing in on the first quarter of the season has emerged as one of the premier shooting guards in the NBA.
The 6-5 200-pound highlight dunker ranks with the likes of Victor Oladipo, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan and probably Jimmy Butler as the most versatile and all around contributing and skilled shooting guards in the NBA. Which the rest of the NBA essentially took notice of after the first 11 games during which LaVine was averaging 27.9 points on 47 percent shooting and 35 percent on threes. With arguably the most defensive attention paid to one player given the lack of scoring around him, LaVine the last five games is averaging 19.4 points on 34 percent shooting and 18 percent on threes.
Yet, in that time LaVine still is among the best shooting guards in the league averaging 6.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
For the season, LaVine is averaging 5.4 rebounds. That trails just Oladipo, Harden, DeRozan and Buddy Hield among shooting guards. Among shooting guards, LaVine trials the Suns' Devin Booker, who doesn't have a point guard to play with, James Harden, DeRozan, Oladipo, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Evan Fornier in assists. But LaVine ranks only behind Harden in scoring among shooting guards at 25.3, which is ninth in the league. And LaVine is fourth in the NBA in minutes per game even after he is less than a year from his own return from ACL surgery, playing more minutes per game than even Jimmy Butler. Butler's statistics will probably improve for him to remain in the conversation. LaVine leads Butler in scoring and rebounding and essentially is tied in assists and hasn't produced any disruption. Klay Thompson and Bradley Beal don't do as much in rebounding and passing, though Thompson is an elite defender. LaVine is improving.
Which, overall, points out how vital LaVine is to the Bulls and how necessary it is to have him on the basketball court.
Opponents took a few weeks, but they figured it out and LaVine now sees a steady stream of defenders with double teams, traps, ice tactics to the baseline as Thibs will demand later this week, help and recover, more eyes focused on LaVine that the t-shirt cannon shooters.
LaVine has done the right thing, passing, rebounding, forcing his way to the free throw line. He's ninth overall in the NBA in free throw attempts per game, and No. 1 among shooting guards.
"I worked on that a lot this offseason, being able to create around the rim and draw contact and finish with both hands creatively," said LaVine. "Obviously, I know you're going to get your shot blocked every once in a while. But you have to be crafty around the rim and be able to finish."
LaVine is working on a run of tough shooting games, a six for 20, eight for 23, nine for 26 against the Bucks. But it's become, in a sense, almost like with Michael Jordan and the 80s Bulls. I will interrupt to say LaVine is no Jordan. But with some of the lineups the Bulls have had to play lately, you'd rather have LaVine attempting a tough shot than some others attempting a somewhat better shot.
Of course, that's also the balance that Jordan had to eventually learn. Though he phrased it succinctly once when he asked whether he should be shooting against a triple team or Granville Waiters, Earl Cureton and Steve Colter at all. Those were your 1986-87 Bulls, a 40-42 team on which Jordan averaged 37 points with an early season run of nine straight games scoring at least 40 and 11 of 12. Ah, the good old days. It wasn't even a .500 team and better players were needed.
The Bulls will start if they can get some healthier players.
Lauri Markkanen has started light workouts, though his return still is uncertain.
"Lauri, I see him working out, running and getting his shots in," said LaVine. "Hopefully his elbow's feeling a lot better. He's one of the main key pieces in this organization. He's such a sensational player on the offensive end and it helps out defensively as well. I can't wait to have him back."
Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis aren't doing as much as Markkanen.
So it still Has to be LaVine.
The Bulls will emphasize ball movement and spacing and other vital offensive concepts, but the opposing scouting reports generally are clear: "Ryan Arcidiacono and Antonio Blakeney aren't beating us. Watch out for No. 8."
"We looked tired," LaVine offered about the Toronto loss. "We looked a little injured and regardless of the fact, I think we still fought. We're not giving in. It might have been an ugly game, but at the end of the day I know we're still going out and competing and going out there to win. I think I've just got to knock down some easy shots. I take some tough ones going to the rim. I try not to force them. Get back to where I was at. I was scoring the ball really easy and getting six, seven easy ones in the paint; try to draw fouls and get to the free throw line."
It will have to be until the reinforcements recover. Though a warning to Zach: Those guys at your apartment door in a defensive stance? They might be playing for some Bulls opponents.