The legendary Bulls assistant and longtime NBA coach Johnny Bach often would joke, especially in those building late 1980s years, that the Bulls ran the archangel offense. You know, save us Michael.
And so it is these days for Zach LaVine. He's not quite there yet, but it's getting closer despite even the heinous overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday.
Save us, Zechariah.
"I think our team is a lot better," Lauri Markkanen insisted to media after the game. "We've got some older guys who have some leadership, and I think overall we're a better team. I think everybody still believes that. It hurts everybody to lose a game like this. We've just got to move forward and learn from this game and get better and get one from Dallas."
That's early Sunday afternoon in the first of a back to back before Martin Luther King Day in the United Center against the Houston Rockets.
The Bulls Saturday's practice was mostly a mental heath day, though repeatedly watching the last five regulation minutes of Friday's game as the Bulls did probably was not the most soothing.
Zach LaVine and Coby White chat during Saturday's practice in Dallas.
"It was more of a teaching day, a lot of film, a lot of bad plays that we had," said Coby White. "As a team, I think we are really frustrated and getting tired of saying, ‘We're right there, we're right there.' We want to say, ‘We're finally getting over that hump.' I think it was a good day for us, less physically but a lot mentally. I feel like we took a step without actually doing stuff physically. I feel like last night hurt us all as a team. I'm pretty sure none of us want that feeling again."
It was particularly disturbing after such a competitive Western Conference trip against elite teams like Portland, the Lakers and Clippers. Then the Bulls had controlled most of the game with the Thunder until an epidemic of mistakes and misses enabled a weak Oklahoma City team to make up a 16-point deficit in the last 4:40, 10-0 in the last two minutes of regulation. The gory particulars already have been much analyzed, which produced some splenetic furniture rearrangement in the locker room afterward and an unusually terse Zach LaVine afterward.
"All I can do is account for myself and try to do the best I can do," said LaVine in one of his longer perorations." Obviously frustrated right now, but we'll get back at it tomorrow and we've got to get on against Dallas. Got to learn how to pull games out. I gotta cut down my turnovers. I gotta make some better plays. We're all in this together. But it's tough."
Zach LaVine finished with 35 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in Chicago's Friday night loss to OKC.
LaVine, as the high scoring best players do, shouldered blame even as it was widespread with all sorts of mischief, turnovers, bad fouls, questionable shots and curious decisions in succession that were evenly divided. Bulls coach Billy Donovan Saturday reiterated a persistent theme of the difference between wanting to win and knowing how.
"I probably sound a little bit like a broken record, but we have to figure out how to win," said Donovan. "It's not one thing. We turn the ball over. We foul the three-point shooter. We got very stagnant. We got away from what we do. Maybe guys didn't get a chance to experience winning at the highest of levels, and now they've got to learn to be able to do that. Because the talent gap has shrunk. They're no longer the biggest, strongest, tallest, the most gifted and the most talented on the floor. They're going to have to learn."
Of course, we all were told that was what this Bulls season was to be about, less about the number of wins than the amount of improvement. Which doesn't mean they don't want to win, and for all the talk Donovan does that sounds like he's teaching basketball 101 to incoming freshman, he isn't giving in to development. The minutes distribution for players like LaVine and White demonstrate that as they've both moved into the league top 15 per game and both are averaging 40 minutes per game the last five. It's not easy if you want to win to rest your best players too long.
Donovan has his own Gordian knot to solve, both teaching the students while hoping and expecting them to be scholars. Alas, the dilemma for all coaches to entangle all the confusing strands of talent.
Especially LaVine, who is becoming one of the stars of the game.
But how can one be considered a star when his team isn't successful?
You know, maybe like Bradley Beal, the much sought after high scoring guard averaging a league high almost 35 points per game for the 3-8 Washington Wizards.
Zach LaVine is a winner; he's just not winning.
This is not unusual in sports as much as everyone measures individual accomplishment with team success. Appropriately enough since that's the goal for everyone, even if it doesn't always appear so with the various tantrums that take place. It would be difficult to argue with LaVine, who many times has said he understood not being named an All-Star because his team was not winning, and then his acute anger in defeat Friday that almost reduced him to mime status.
LaVine shared in the collapse with turnovers and missed shots, though once again as happened in just about every close game this season it was LaVine making yet another difficult and unlikely shot to give him a chance to miss another for the victory.
But Donovan keeps going back to him as do his teammates. They all know. Even when the last play of regulation Friday was between Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr., LaVine ended up with the ball and a desperate shot when Porter froze with the ball and picked up his dribble and Markkanen was thwarted. Anyone seen Zach? Here's the ball. Jordan probably would have been a 60 percent career shooter of not for all the passes he got from teammates with four seconds on the clock. Save us, Michael. Save us, Zach.
Because LaVine's production is as good as anyone's in the NBA.
He is third in the league in scoring, a tenth of a percentage point behind Stephen Curry at 28.3 per game. In the last six games starting with his 39 points to beat Dallas back in the United Center, LaVine is averaging 34.5 points, six rebounds, six assists, 46 percent shooting on threes and 55 percent overall. With his fluid three point shooting, 18 of 30 the last two games, and his unique ability to get to glide through the thicket of bodies to the basket perhaps no Bull has scored like that since Jordan. Both Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose had episodes of great scoring, but neither was a shooter of LaVine's level. Only Rose rivaled LaVine's athleticism.
The Bulls reviewed their mistakes from Friday's loss to the Thunder on Saturday in Dallas.
Though LaVine most reminded me of the truly great ones late in the fourth quarter Friday when all was collapsing around him, and because of him as well. LaVine isn't a natural facilitator, though Donovan again chose LaVine to play through down the stretch. It's understandable. There really isn't anyone more equipped with Tomas Satoransky still out with the Covid virus and Ryan Arcidiacono not in the regular rotation. LaVine can make plays since he did play point guard when he came to the NBA. And he can score like no one else, which is why he's played more than 40 minutes three of the last six games.
So there was an offensive foul and a miss, an errant pass and here comes Lu Dort and Darius Bazley—don't remind us—so LaVine just grabbed the ball and drove to get to the free throw line. LaVine got going too fast in obvious frustration, which sometimes contributes to some of those late misplays. And coaches often warn about trying to do too much. But the great ones don't let the game come to them. They go and grab it. LaVine tried. He didn't do enough to succeed this time, but he is becoming good enough that you can begin to dream.
The Bulls with new management and a new coaching staff are again choosing a direction. It appears promising. They're attempting to develop the correct habits along the way, which includes winning games. Though winners don't always win in the NBA.
Pau Gasol, for example, was 0-12 in three playoffs with Memphis before he went to join Kobe Bryant and was instrumental in two championship teams. Tracy McGrady became a Hall of Famer and never played for a team that advanced past the first round of the playoffs. And, by the way, Steph Curry's team is struggling to remain at .500 and generally not considered a playoff team anymore without another All-Star. LeBron James is as good as there has been in this era, but had to join Hall of Famers in Miami. Kevin Durant did in Golden State. They were not losers before then.
Ultimate success wasn't prophesized for the Bulls even with Michael. It came following despair and persistent effort because the talent never was dismissed. Zach remains confident he, too, will be able to write such a gospel one day. Just that all the figures probably aren't there yet to finish the book.