On a night where the United Center - the players, coaches and fans - recognized and honored Kobe Bryant, it was Zach LaVine, number 8, who turned it on in the fourth quarter (scoring 14 of his 23 points) to push the Bulls past the Spurs to grab a 110-109 win.
Kobe would have been proud.
Number 8 for the Bulls Monday just couldn't get anything to go down. It happens to the best sometimes. Six of seven misses in the first quarter, another in the second. Four halftime points, and then just five more in the third quarter as the Bulls fell behind the San Antonio Spurs by double digits. But then came the crucible, when his team needed him the most, when he was the most ready.
"My teammates kept telling me, ‘Help us win this game,'" Zach LaVine said. "All I needed to see was one go in."
And so LaVine did, a three with 8:47 left in the game after a Chandler Hutchison offensive rebound. And then there was a where-did-he-go driving score and another, another three sandwiching five points from Luke Kornet. And then when everything stopped and everyone stared, when LaVine had to make a pair of free throws with 2.1 seconds left, he did. And when DeMar DeRozan had to match that with two tenths of a second left he didn't. And on the night the Bulls remembered Kobe Bryant, LaVine paid the Lakers' legend the most appropriate tribute by winning a game as Kobe would, 14 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter and the no blink free throws to a 110-109 victory for the Bulls.
"I'm not scared to fail or miss any shot," LaVine said. "So give me the ball. I think I'll make them. I'm ready to take them, good or bad, (and be satisfied) with the results."
Just like Kobe probably would have said, and did during his legendary NBA career.
The Bulls & Spurs start the game with 8 & 24 second violations in honor of Kobe
The NBA remained still stunned and in mourning following the Sunday death of Bryant, his daughter and friends in a helicopter crash. Some players asked out of games; the NBA accepted the Lakers' request to postpone it's Tuesday game with the Clippers. Tributes were performed in every NBA arena, the Bulls and Spurs exchanging eight and 24-second violations as the game began in recognition of Bryant's playing numbers. There was a 24-second silence and a video homage. The United Center exterior was lit in Lakers purple and gold and featured portraits of Bryant. Hundreds of fans wore Bryant jerseys to the game. Players decorated sneakers to honor Bryant. Fans adorned the sidewalks outside the arena with chalk-written praise.
But everyone still had to go to work, which was Bryant's basketball life.
And then to figure out a way to succeed, which the Bulls did in one of their better all around efforts, seven players scoring in double figures led by LaVine with Denzel Valentine equalling a season high with 16 points and four threes.
"I thought Denzel was terrific," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "He's kept himself ready and he came in and helped us win a game."
The Bulls were the more spirited guys with 19 second chance points and a 50-47 rebounding edge, three more steals, a block and eight assists from Kris Dunn, 12 points and nine rebounds from Kornet and 13 points each from Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young.
The Bulls moved to 19-30 and a don't-look-now-but just two games out of the last playoff position and only two and a half out of seventh with the Magic and Nets sliding. The Spurs are 20-26. They got 36 points from DeRozan, who needed one more and almost made it two more and a win when he rebounded and shot putted his second free throw miss back toward the rim but short as time expired. It might have counted. But this time the Bulls were the ones to close, coming from 11 points behind in the fourth quarter and getting their second straight win without Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford. LaMarcus Aldridge was out injured for the Spurs.
"All the players were willing themselves through the game," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "It's a tough time for all the players; just not one or two. It was either young guys that idolized Kobe or older guys who knew him. Everybody is in that same boat emotionally. I think they (Bulls) competed harder through most of the 48 minutes."
The shock is not diminishing much among NBA players with Bryant gone so young at 41 along with daughter Gianni and friends. Everyone knows, intellectually, that no one is immortal. It's just that Kobe seemed so undaunted, charging through games, injuries, controversies like few ever have and emerging with more charm and humanity. LaVine wears No. 8 for inspiration.
"Kobe had a big impact on a whole generation of kids," said LaVine. "We looked up to him. My generation, he was our Michael Jordan. That was one of my idols growing up."
The flood of emotions that have washed over the basketball world, the whole world, really, with Bryant a beloved figure overseas and especially in Asia, has been unprecedented. Never in basketball has someone so exalted and accomplished been taken away so suddenly. It's left so much of the electrifying and theatrical basketball world numb and dazed.
"We know how hard it is and everyone deals with it in a different way," LaVine said. "It was good to honor him that way (pregame). The gym didn't really have a lot of energy to it and it makes sense. We had to settle in and play."
It was challenging for both teams in a laborious first half in which the Bulls quickly trailed by 11 points and then 28-21 at the end of the first quarter. LaVine, especially, seemed enervated. Long benched for no reason anyone could fathom, Boylen tapped Valentine and the Spartan made up for his spartan existence with crucial threes. Hutchison showed enthusiasm driving to the basket and even showed off a mini-flex after one left handed slam dunk. The Bulls inched ahead 50-48 at halftime.
Hutchinson with a HUGE dunk!
Then came the dreaded third quarter. The Bulls have found all sorts of ways to fall behind after halftime, this time with Patty Mills leaving Coby White asking for missing person help and making a pair of threes for 11 third quarter points. And DeRozan, a dinosaur master of the mid range game, pulling up for short range scores and drawing fouls. DeRozan had 16 points in the quarter and not-your-father's Spurs led 85-75 entering the fourth quarter.
"I got off to a slow start," LaVine acknowledged. "I made some boneheaded plays on layups, (once) trying to switch hands (on a breakaway) and stuff like that. I missed some easy ones. I think I started off like one of 10. I just had to settle in. I'm always confident. That's how you turn a bad game into a good one."
Which is the way the great ones always see it; not so much what went wrong, but what they're about to do to make it right.
The Bulls began their comeback with another Valentine three.
"Just trying to do what I can and staying ready," said Valentine.
There hasn't been much reason for Valentine to be engaged, though he always is, one of the more energetic players on the bench this season. Perhaps because he's there more than anyone. But with all the injuries, he got the call and responded with even a team best plus/minus rating.
Valentine's three with 10:19 left kicked off an 8-0 Bulls run and it was game on. LaVine took the handoff and helped the Bulls finally take the lead at 96-95 with 6:09 left. And then it was a toggle switch of a finish, six lead changes and ties in a game with 25 on the teeter totter. It was 103-103 with 3:14 left when Boylen surprised Popovich. There's not much of that intentional fouling lately as most of the poorest shooting centers have improved. Not so the Spurs Jacob Poeltl. Boylen called for fouls on two straight possessions, Poeltl obliging by making one of four and giving the Bulls back the momentum and a 108-104 lead when Young made a three off a Dunn pass with 2:29 left. The Bulls with 28 assists moved the ball with alacrity and selflessness, extra passes yielding more open shots and 14 of 37 on threes.
Boylen chose not to bring help against DeRozan, who made 14 of 17 free throws. But those best laid plans did work.
"We are not going to pull off and double him in his isolations," said Boylen. "Now we are giving up a three to guys that can stroke it."
The Bulls still almost gave it away, committing three consecutive turnovers, a Satoransky offensive foul, an eight-second violation against LaVine when he was pressured and a Dunn offensive foul after two vigorous Bulls offensive rebounds. DeRozan had a jumper in that midst and he tied it at 108 with 8.6 seconds left on another isolation turnaround.
The Bulls called timeout for LaVine to drive, benefiting from a late foul call. LaVine coolly made both free throws for the 110-108 lead with 2.1 seconds left. But then Dunn brushing by DeRozan was called for a foul with two ticks. The long of it was that DeRozan's instant follow of his miss on the second free throw came up just short.
"At the end it turned into a dogfight," said LaVine. "Both teams making big plays. DeMar was making tough shots. We went down there and answered every time. Luckily he missed that free throw. I don't think (Kobe) would like anybody not to go out there and compete."
That's the best tribute to Bryant legacy. Don't back down; stand up and go for it.