Zach LaVine Sunday in the Bulls 110-96 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks missed his first nine shots, making it 24 of his last 27 shots missed going back through late in the loss to the 76ers last week. LaVine, regarded by many as the centerpiece of the big Jimmy Butler trade last summer, wasn’t happy about it as the Bulls lost their fourth straight game.
“It’s frustrating,” LaVine acknowledged. “You put a lot of work into it, but things are just not dropping. Part of the game. I’ll get it going. I’m going back to the gym tonight to get some shots up, clear your head. It’s frustrating with the consecutive losses at home; have to defend this place.”
It is a bad stretch for the Bulls with point guard Kris Dunn still out with a concussion and the headache for coach Fred Hoiberg as he tries to find someone to make plays and accelerate the team’s offense. No one has been able to fill that role as for a second straight game a reserve, this time Denzel Valentine with 18 points, led the team in scoring after yet another indifferent opening by the starters.
Lauri Markkanen had 17 points and 10 rebounds, now officially the greatest scoring Finnish player in NBA history overtaking Hanno Mottola. There was no ceremony. Jerian Grant added 15 points, Justin Holiday 12 and Nikola Mirotic 10. Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee with 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
“We’re a much better team when we get the ball up the floor quickly and Kris Dunn is our best pace guard,” Hoiberg noted. “He’s our best player out of flow. We can create things early in possessions and we’re missing that right now in a big way. That being said, we still have to go out and play the right way and get the ball up the floor.
“We’re going to have a hell of a practice tomorrow,” Hoiberg promised. “We’re going to have a training camp-type practice. We’ve got to get our competitive edge back; we’ve got to get our spirit back. So we’re going to go like hell and hopefully get some of that back. It starts with practice tomorrow.”
LaVine started early with his late night trip Sunday back to the Advocate Center, and that’s just part of the good news about the guy whose defense attorneys are requesting for firing squads.
LaVine is driving the ball hard, he’s dunking. Late in the game, he faced down Antetokounmpo defensively, quickly adjusting side to side without letting Antetokounmpo get past. LaVine got into the passing lanes, reaching high and twisting to get deflections and get out on the break, coming back hard after a turnover to recover the ball with a steal.
There wasn’t enough of it to keep the Bulls from falling to 18-32 as they search out some better combinations, try to get the ball to Markkanen more and stop holding onto the damn ball so much!
Sorry, but I’ve been watching all the games.
But LaVine, the former Bounce Brother with Andrew Wiggins back in Minnesota, continues to have plenty of spring still less than a year removed from major anterior cruciate surgery.
“I don’t have any fear,” LaVine said with one of those, ‘Hey, I answered that three weeks ago’ looks. “I got over that part really fast. I know athletically I’m still one of the top guys out there. So I can always fall back on that. I can’t hang my head because a month ago I was sitting on the sideline wishing I could go 0 for 20. I’m happy I’m out there playing and I’m just going to keep working at it.
Which is also not to say LaVine is satisfied; hardly.
But the significance amidst a run of poor team efforts is the point guard is down temporarily and the shooting guard continues to move with bounce.
OK, it’s the ‘but they have their health thing.’ Sure, the Bulls have been playing poorly. Though less because of erratic shooting than rare, at least for lately, indifferent efforts.
“We may have lost a game (the last month), but it wasn’t because of effort and energy,” Hoiberg pointed out. “We have lost a little bit of that. We’ve taken a step back and have two days to work on that (before going to Portland) and hopefully get it back.”
It’s been those weak starts, especially at home. This time it was 13-7 Bucks. This time it was not only missing eight of their first 10 shots, but doing so standing around the perimeter throwing up jump shots and then admiringly watching the opponent run the other way. It was familiar to the 3-20 Bulls, though not so much for the month afterward. A lot of that has returned as Hoiberg tries to juggle Dunn being out with bringing LaVine back with escalating minutes.
Grant can be a good energy scorer, but continues to not only dribble too much but he becomes mechanical looking to pass. He is not unwilling, but it’s not natural and sometimes he’ll get to the basket and pass because it’s obvious he was thinking he had to pass that time. He is trying to do what the coaches ask.
So Hoiberg worked in LaVine, Markkanen and Valentine as playmakers at times, and, really, only Valentine is much good at it. One time Markkanen was dribbling up and forgot to keep dribbling. Valentine changed the pace of the game Sunday with three straight first quarter scores on a series of floaters and runners to get the Bulls competitive and trailing 26-20 after one quarter.
“Denzel was the bright spot today,” said Hoiberg.
Hoiberg said he also decided to keep LaVine at shooting guard to get him more comfortable in one position, which made sense.
“I’ve always had that in my game,” Valentine said about the array of floaters and adding four assists. “It’s more coming out this year because my role has increased. Last year was pretty much watching Jimmy and D-Wade and shoot threes when I can. This is a new team this year, sharing the ball and running offense. I’m much more than a thee-point shooter.
“It kind of stinks I was starting and playing well and a guy comes back and takes a starting role,” Valentine conceded. “But I’m living my dream playing in the NBA and he’s a great player who is going to help us win games.”
The second quarter proved the fatal letdown for the Bulls, Valentine scoring 10 of the Bulls 22 points as the Bucks ran — and did they run with 10 fast break points — to a 61-42 halftime lead. And there wasn’t much more to say after that. The Bulls had 10 turnovers by halftime with 27 points in the half from the bench and just 15 points from the starters despite substantially more playing time. Valentine alone in less than 15 first half minutes had more first half points than the five starters combined in 73 minutes.
“We have great players on our second unit who could be starting on a lot of teams in this league,” said Valentine. “We believe that in our hearts. So we want to play with pride and show we deserve to belong in the game and play as hard as we can.”
The Bulls reserves now are seventh in the league in scoring. Time for a starting lineup energy boost? New player? New attitude?
“The starters are out there for a reason,” said LaVine. “We have to bring some energy to the game. We cannot lack on offense and lack on defense. Something has to be going for us, so we have to change that fast.”
The starters got a little bit going in the third quarter, Justin Holiday with some threes, Grant with a pair and Valentine making the plays, the defense better as the Bucks missed all seven of their threes. But there’s also what great players do.
Milwaukee has one; the Bulls are hoping they do. With all around him flailing, Antetokounmpo took over in a five minute stretch with a spinning drive for a dunk on a switch, poor Robin Lopez looking like one of those dizzy mascots. Antetokounmpo after a one of seven start had eight of the Bucks 10 points in their otherwise fallow stretch. So the Bulls could only get within 13 on a Markkanen three. But then Khris Middleton began to awake and the Bucks still held onto an 86-72 lead after three quarters.
It’s what’s misunderstood about the “closer” in the NBA. It’s not just those last shots at the end of the game. It’s the things Michael Jordan and later Derrick Rose would do. Those players, like Antetokounmpo with the Bucks, carry a team through a four or five-minute stretch when they could lose a lead with everyone else going cold. That’s when teams create those deficits, and those players are the lost lead obstructionists. Then having a break or the pressure off, teammates begin to respond. It’s what happened Sunday for the Bucks.
And then even with a Bobby Ports flex after his only basket of the game with eight other misses, the Bulls couldn’t get enough going even as LaVine finally began to break out a bit late in the game.
“I’m not worried,” said Hoiberg. “Zach’s offense will come; he’s a proven scorer. He’s missing shots he normally makes and shots he made when he first came back. The encouraging thing is his defense has been better. He’s too good of a shooter. Athletic enough to finish at the basket, which he’s not doing a great job of now, but he will as he continues to get his conditioning and timing and rhythm, and that will come.”
When LaVine was growing up as a Northwest prep superstar, he was alternatively known as “Star Child” or “No way.” No way? Well, because there was no way to stop him, so the story goes. So he’s been there and believes there are again no physical barriers.
“I’m not going to react negatively,” LaVine said. “I’m going to go out and play my game and if it doesn’t work out I have all the confidence in the world. I worked hard to get to this point and it’s going to eventually come. You can’t hang your head about that. We have a lot more games left; that’s what so good about the NBA. I have to be a closing pitcher. You have to get over that late walk off home run.”
That’s right, just play ball.