Zach LaVine took an unusually long time in the shower Monday following the Bulls 103-98 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Not that anyone was complaining. You can get awfully sweaty out there after playing 41 minutes and taking 23 shots for a team high 26 points with 10 of 11 free throws, second in assists as a primary ball handler and getting in the way for four steals and seven turnovers, being bounced around by defenders like you were a beach volleyball and feeling like sand was kicked in your face with the team dropping to 4-10.
The personable LaVine has quickly become the media favorite in the Bulls locker room, and not only because he is one of the top scorers in the NBA and has brought the "oohs" and "aahs" back to the United Center with his flashy play, this time with a third quarter windmill dunk that looked like it would provide enough electricity to hold off the next energy crisis.
"I still enjoy it, I can still get up," LaVine said as his sentences stretched out after a halting start. "I've got a lot dunks left in the tank, hopefully. I'm healthy, got my legs back, even though that windmill might have taken a couple of my jump shots away right there. I airmailed two jump shots today."
It was another tough game for LaVine and the Bulls even as the Bulls didn't mail it in and repeatedly rallied from deficits as large as 14 points and were within three with six minutes remaining in the game. The Bulls playground like scrambling at the close could get them only within four, but you could almost hear the faint playground voices around the Bulls these days.
Like when things start getting away.
"A little help!"
The Bulls and LaVine certainly could use it, but none seems imminent as Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg estimated Lauri Markkanen still remains two to four weeks from a return, extending his time away with his elbow injury to probably eight to 10 weeks. Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis also are likely to be out until early December. So the weight of these games continues to fall on LaVine as defenses crowd him and the surrounding scoring comes and goes.
Jabari Parker added 16 points, but was one of eight in the first half as the Bulls fell behind by double digits and 56-49 at halftime. Justin Holiday added 14 points with three of seven threes and two steals with sharp defense on Dallas rookie Luka Doncic. Doncic had just 11 points on three of 12 shooting.
"We had stretches where we were really good (defensively) out there," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, noting the 11 Bulls steals. "And then we had stretches where we allowed them to pop wide open and miss transition. Those stretches happened when we quit making shots or when we don't make shots. The good teams find a way to buckle down. We have grown in that area, but it has to become more consistent."
Wendell Carter had early foul trouble against DeAndre Jordan and had just seven points with 10 rebounds, though with a pair of blocks and relentless defensive positioning. Chandler Hutchison also was good defensively and showed more flashes with nine points and nine rebounds. He figures to get more playing time. The Bulls had only those three players scoring in double figures while the 5-8 Mavericks had six players in double figures led by Harrison Barnes with 23 points.
Though for the Bulls after a breezy start to the game and 17-10 lead with the ball jumping around for open shots, the rim shrunk and the Bulls reverted to more isolation play and individual dribbling.
"We do have a tendency when the shot isn't falling to try to be heroes," Holiday acknowledged. "Everyone wants to try to be the one to get it back going for us, which ends up not having the ball move or playing iso ball or one pass and shot type things, which obviously we need to get out of. But, obviously, we have dudes who can score the ball and they think that way. Obviously, we are way better now defensively than we were at the beginning of the year, but now we can't be OK with that. We have to get to that next point and be more consistent, not make as many mistakes."
While on the offensive side LaVine continues to rank third in so called usage rate, meaning the percentage of team plays. Only James Harden who plays with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook who plays with Paul George have higher such rates than LaVine. Which means they have some fellow All-Stars who even when they aren't shooting are getting the attention of the defense. No offense, as it were, but Parker and Holiday are not so much receiving the attention of Chris Paul and Paul George. Carter and Arcidiacono? Not so much, either.
LaVine thus ends up in the crosshairs of every opponent scouting report, and he's taking some tough shots.
"I'm tired, but I'm all right," LaVine said as he, as usual, spent the most time speaking with reporters. "Doing everything I can. Made some mistakes, missed some shots that were easy. Didn't hit any threes today. I got easy things I can do better at, make more effort plays on defense. I always ask more for myself, but I'm doing everything I can."
No one can deny the effort and belief LaVine is putting into the game. Perhaps sometimes too much, though it seems an honest desire to help. He's willingly accepted Hoiberg's demands to become a distributor early in games and recorded at least four assists for the seventh consecutive game. It ties the most consecutive games he's done that from his rookie season when he was playing point guard.
"I did a good job the first half reading the plays, four or five assists off the bat," LaVine pointed out. "But then I tried to force it a couple of times, so they started blitzing higher. I have to make a better or quicker decision. I have to do a better job taking care of the ball. It's a blitz (double team) every time. I'm not worried about the first defender; it's the second one I'm trying to read. I'm still attacking, but I missed some real easy shots. We only lost by a small amount. I could have made a couple more. That's the game right there; I have to do my job."
LaVine was doing so in that 17-10 start, but the Bulls hit a stretch of seven straight misses and eight of 10 missed threes in the first quarter to fall behind 25-20. The Mavericks added on eight straight to start the second quarter and the Bulls were soon behind 41-27. LaVine then took it upon himself as he often has to with a pair of drives for scores, hurtling through multiple bodies as the Bulls went on an 18-5 run of their own to get within two. The Mavs made it a seven-point lead at halftime.
"I give Zach a lot credit. As much as we are going through Zach, he is growing on making the simple play and getting better at that," said Hoiberg. "We've got to get the pace (better), get down the floor much better and I put that on me. I've got to be better as far getting us into something where we are not stagnant for as long a stretches as we are now; I have to get us better at that."
The Bulls got back to 58-57 on that windmill. Dallas then pulled away by 10 with four empty Bulls possessions. The Bulls got back within one again with a good sequence of Parker power plays inside and trailed 78-75 after three quarters. The Mavericks jumped on the Bulls to start the quarter, the Bulls pulled within 87-84, and then it was five more consecutive empty possessions for the Bulls with quick shots and isolation. The Mavericks remained more patient and unselfish, and it was enough even as LaVine scored six of the Bulls last eight points.
The conversation then turned to speed and Mavericks guard Dennis Smith, whom LaVine acknowledged, "is fast, but he ain't as fast as me."
The fastest end to end in the NBA?
"Russell Westbrook," LaVine said. "Dennis Smith. John Wall still is really fast, Ish Smith is quick. Derrick Rose is still probably top 10 fastest in the NBA. Pascal Siakam, Toronto, (different) name, but he chased me down last year. Startled me. I didn't think he was going to catch me."
And no time for the Bulls to catch their breath with a brutal rest of the week in Boston and Milwaukee and home Saturday for Toronto, arguably the East's three best teams
"A loss is a loss," LaVine said. "Doesn't matter if you are a young team or an experienced team. The only thing that matters is to try to get the win. We didn't do that again, so we have to find a way. It's frustrating because it was another winnable game and we let it slip through our fingers. It was frustrating."