Bulls hold off Pelicans, head into All-Star break 16-18

A large second-half Bulls lead evaporated in the fourth quarter but Chicago held off a resilient New Orleans Pelicans squad to capture the 128-124 win. Zach LaVine finished with 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting and 8 assists. Coby White added 25 points. The Bulls head into the All-Star break with a 16-18 overall record.

The Bulls come into the All-Star break with an All-Star for the first time in four years. And Zach LaVine Wednesday in the Bulls nervous—what other kind of games are there for these Bulls?—128-124 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans once again demonstrated what NBA stardom is about.

LaVine with a few little uh ohs down the stretch when the Bulls saw a 19-point fourth quarter lead melt to three with 13 seconds left did just about everything but serve the red beans and rice.

"I thought the close of third quarter Zach got control of the game personally," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "He really, obviously, gave us an incredible scoring punch. But that group (with LaVine) was in there to close the game and we've got to do that a little bit better, too."

Sure, always the coach, and that's a big reason why the Bulls at 16-18 still are trending. It did look at times at the close the Bulls were stuck in a bowl of gumbo, fouling three-point shooters twice to maintain their league speciality and fumbling at the goal line despite an eight-point lead with 40 seconds to go.

But this time there was no Golden State, Portland, Phoenix—oh so many—nightmare close as LaVine and Coby White converted vital free throws. And lately embattled Wendell Carter Jr. may have made the play of the game with an offensive rebound putback with a minute left to retain a 119-113 lead with the Pelicans about to mistake the Bulls for crayfish.

"Fouling two three-point shooters on back-to-back possessions totally kept them alive," lamented Donovan, always the coach and teacher. "So there's a lot of things we have to do better; they need to learn how to close games. I do not want to take away the effort. Our guys battled and fought and didn't fold at the end. I give Coby and Zach credit at the end for making free throws; those were big. Wendell really was a big factor in the game in terms of what he did around the basket. But there's certainty some things we can clean up and do better."

There always will be, especially this work-in-progress, though much improved Bulls season.

But it's worth for yet another moment to celebrate just how special an All-Star LaVine has become.

And not only with another remarkable line of 36 points and eight assists, shooting 12 of 18, four of eight on threes and making all eight of his free throw attempts. This while the defense traps, double teams and chases LaVine around the court.

HIGHLIGHTS: Zach LaVine drops 36 against Pelicans.

But this game the Bulls basically controlled from the beginning with an 8-0 start. They led for all but a few seconds in the second quarter inspired by LaVine's play and presence. Overall, LaVine had a respectable plus-15 rating, which fell to that with the final Pelicans push. But the game ebbed and flowed as LaVine appeared and disappeared.

The Bulls led 25-16 when he came out in the first quarter, after which the Pelicans closed the quarter 9-1 and the Bulls led 26-25 after one. With LaVine out to open the second quarter, the Pelicans took their only lead of the game and were trailing 39-37 when LaVine returned. The rest of the second quarter with LaVine mostly setting up White, who finished with 25 points, and Thad Young who had 18, the Bulls went on to lead 64-45 at halftime. The game seemed out of reach for a shaky New Orleans team when LaVine scored 10 of the Bulls last 12 points of the third quarter for a 96-79 lead.

The Bulls moved that out to 105-86 with 9:35 left before a Pelicans group of reserves led by J.J. Redick with 22 points almost ruined what should be a relaxing week off after an intense 10 weeks of play.

Which probably, at least, made Donovan happy. Because there remained teaching moments. And Donovan was quick to point out as encouraging as this season has been at times, it's still a ninth place Bulls team. The aspirations are much higher. Good for him.

"We have a losing record right now," Donovan pointed out. "The record to me is more about how we're playing and are we making progress. I think this team has made incredible progress. These guys have been phenomenal. But at the same point we have a long way to go and I'm trying to not have them be satisfied and we need to keep trying to pull more out of each other. They need to pull more out of me, I've got to pull more out of them. There's more to give. There's growth and there's an opportunity to improve and get better.

"You put everything you have into it, and then at the end of the year you look and see where you're at and you can, I think, feel good about the effort you put in," philosophized Donovan. "But certainly I hope we continue to get better because I still think there's room for improvement and growth in the team."

No one seemed satisfied, least of all LaVine, who heads for Atlanta for Sunday's All-Star game and a repeat in the long distance shooting contest. It's LaVine's first All-Star game appearance as he tries to complete the unprecedented All-Star triple in attempting to win the three-point shooting contest along with his previous dunk contest championships. Rarely has the NBA known a player that versatile.

"Obviously, we wish it was a little bit easier because we worked so hard throughout the game and we were playing really well and we had them down," said LaVine. "But I think we responded well. We've had some ups and downs (this season), but we've been in pretty much every game obviously after the first couple. When we compete and we come out like the way we did tonight, we give ourselves a chance to win even with some ups and downs. We always have fight. It doesn't matter if we get down 20. I think we always have a chance of coming back."

The Bulls have done that frequently this season perforce, and this time they endured. They also learned as in that shocking loss to Portland, LaVine waiting to get fouled then and allowing himself to be tied up. The jump ball eventually to Damian Lillard ended up in the most incredible of Bulls losses. This time with 13.3 seconds left leading by three, LaVine took the inbounds pass on the run and the Pelicans were forced to catch up and foul with 9.7 seconds remaining.

"I think I learned my lesson a little bit with Portland," LaVine admitted.

Brandon Ingram, who had been having an awful game and was benched much of the fourth quarter, then made a three to get New Orleans within two with 3.4 seconds left. But White made both of his free throws to ground the Pelicans.

Zion Williamson led the Pelicans with 28 points. But he had several attempts blocked late in the game, and in the season sweep of the Pelicans it again was the LaVine and White show. Last month in the Bulls win over New Orleans, LaVine and White combined for 76 points with LaVine getting 46. They combined for 17 threes in that game. They were eight for 15 on threes Wednesday. New Orleans was six of 22.

White gets New Orleans big man Zion Williamson up in the air.

LaVine also continued his current NBA longest streak with his 21st consecutive game scoring at least 20 points with his 17th game scoring at least 30 points. LaVine is sixth in the NBA at 28.6 points per game, trailing only Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic are just after LaVine. Among that top eight, only Beal and LaVine because their teams are below .500 are not considered MVP candidates. Among the top six scorers, only LaVine, Curry and Antetokounmpo are also averaging at least five rebound and five assists.

And there was plenty of help this time as Patrick Williams had 13 points and three blocks, Denzel Valentine had 11 and the lately embattled Carter had a team best plus-22 and seven points and 15 rebounds.

"Coby made a couple of big shots, Zach got downhill and we kind of weathered the storm," noted Donovan. "The one thing that's good for our team, it doesn't need to be all Zach. I thought Coby made a big three, I thought Garrett (Temple) had a drive. Obviously Thad played great, but the way they're playing (LaVine), there are opportunities."

One was for Carter, who had been overwhelmed in some recent games by the big star centers like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, and even Carter admits he takes things too hard. Donovan agreed, and it turned out Donovan made a crucial substitution when he brought back Carter with 1:49 left and the Bulls leading 117-113. Carter had mostly been sitting out late in games recently with the height-deprived Young often closing at center. This time Carter's rebound and putback of a White miss with 1:05 left gave the Bulls just enough mistake room to survive.

It helped at the time the Pelicans were in the midst of missing four consecutive free throws, including two straight by Williamson. He was eight of 16 on free throws. The Pelicans overall missed 12. But the Bulls also out rebounded New Orleans by 10 thanks to Carter and were 20-10 on second chance points with Carter having seven offensive rebounds.

Wendell Carter Jr. shoots over the top of Pelicans center Willy Hernangomez.

"The thing for Wendell to realize his fullest potential, he's way too hard on himself," said Donovan. "He is very, very, very critical of himself, has a really, really hard time at times of moving past things. But for him to realize his fullest potential, he's got to get to a place to realize how important he is to our team, how good of a player he is. And just compete. Can he compete when he has some setbacks or mistakes? I thought he did that tonight. That was encouraging to see. I thought he battled and he fought. He was aggressive and was physical and gave a really good effort. That's what we have to keep getting out of him and he has to learn to play through some of those mistakes."

Same for those Bulls, who have come a long way, baby, from those ugly days around Christmas when coal in their stockings would have been uplifting compared to humiliating one-sided losses to the Hawks and Pacers.

"Sometimes you go back and watch some of these games from earlier in the year and you are like, ‘Oh my god,'" said Donovan. "But they really have made really good progress. It's not where we want to be; we're not satisfied where we are at. We've got to keep striving to raise a level of play and a standard that is better than it was today. That's the challenge. You are going back and looking at the first 10 games of the year (and) that's when you can say, ‘We're a lot different; we're playing a lot different.' The growth we have made. That part of it you can see."

And so as night falls on the first half of this Bulls season, it's a good chance to see the stars come out. The Bulls again have at least one. Take a good look.