LaVine explodes for 39 as Bulls cruise past Magic

LaVine scored 22 of his 39 points in the first-half as Chicago had their best defensive performance of the season.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Zach LaVine erupted for 39 points (16-of-25 shooting) and Denzel Valentine added 20 points starting in place of Lauri Markkanen as the Bulls blew out the Magic 118-92 on Saturday night to split the two-game, back-to-back series. Rookie Patrick Williams also recorded his first-career double-double (16 points and ten rebounds). The Bulls improve to 9-13 and will host the Washington Wizards (5-14) on Monday night.

I don't know what's in Billy Donovan dreams, though they most likely feature a grain leather ball about 29 inches in circumference with an 18-inch diameter orange steel rod with attached braided nylon

The voices repeat things like, "Winning sets the rules; I don't. The game sets the rules," which Donovan offered Saturday night after the Bulls impressive 118-92 victory over the Orlando Magic.

It was as good as it gets for these Bulls with a 33-point third quarter lead, at least 50 percent shooting overall and on threes, 28 assists and just 10 turnovers, winning in paint scoring, second chance points and fast breaks, holding the Magic below 40 percent shooting and their star player, Nikola Vucevic, after 43 points Friday to 17 and a minus-41 when he was on the court against the Bulls rapidly active defenses. It was the stuff of dreams for a coach like Donovan, who knows there'll never be a perfect game, but it's certainly worth fantasizing about.

"Tonight I feel we maintained an identity on both ends of the floor," Donovan said. "That's what we have to do. For our team, when we have these lapses for minutes at a time, it's hard for us to recover, especially when it happens in maybe a second quarter or close to the half or the start or middle of the third quarter. That's what we're fighting for, consistency and an understanding that every possession matters. I always say this: Every possession has a life of its own. It's a competitive, 24-second life of its own. There will never, ever be another possession like that maybe again."

So treasure it? Maybe like a first love? Because it's special. Is that Donovan dreaming again?

"How you play that is really important," said Donovan. "There are a whole bunch of them on offense and a whole bunch of them on defense. You can't pick and choose which ones you decide to play as a competitor. You have to physically line up and play and concentrate."

And that's about as close as the Bulls have come this season to being in Donovan's dreams.

Highlights from Chicago's dominant 118-92 win over Orlando on Saturday night

Sure, the Magic was missing several regulars, but so were the Bulls with Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen out with injuries. But the Magic seemingly were carrying the momentum coming off Friday's 123-119 win over the Bulls even with Zach LaVine's 24 fourth quarter points.

LaVine has been something of a project for Donovan, trying to merge LaVine's offensive prowess with the game's right way ideology. It's a sensitive alchemy considering LaVine's raw materials of speed, certainty and elan. Could Donovan's turn at hoop chemistry make him an Isaac Newton of the hardwood?

"I don't even think it's about the scoring as remarkable as it is and as easy as it is for him and as gifted as he is scoring the basketball," Donovan said. "He didn't play like that yesterday. That was part of the challenge. He didn't attack the basket last night. Tonight he played totally downhill."

And in the process LaVine and his teammates breezed past the Orlando players like Olympic skiers in a Super G.

LaVine—Super Z— had 22 first-half points, making it 46 for three consecutive quarters. Denzel Valentine making his first start of the season for Markkanen added 13 of his season high 20. The Bulls oft questioned defense was as attached as a champion relay team and the Bulls were on the verge of breaking open the game with a 61-43 halftime lead. "All good coaches, great coaches, they find ways to motivate their team, they find ways to bring out the best in their players," Valentine said about Donovan's pregame message. "He just said if we want to be a playoff team or take our team to the next level – which we have the ability to – we need to come out and we need to show it. No one is just going to give it to us just because we won some games early. He challenged us: Can we do that? Can we play every single night or at least bring the effort every single night? I think we showed that we can tonight.''

And then the Bulls quickly made it the blowout of the season with a 21-6 start to the second half led by Coby White's smokin' third quarter with all of his 13 points and four of four on three pointers.

Coby White

Coby White scored all 13 of his points in the second quarter to help the Bulls pull away to a huge first-half lead.

Patrick Williams added 16 points and ten rebounds, Thad Young, less needed for a change, scored 11 and Tomas Satoransky, with his best play since his long Covid absences, had nine points and a team best six assists. The Bulls went to 9-13 (Orlando is 9-15) and stayed good enough to dream a game out of seventh place in the tumultuous Eastern Conference.

So what exactly did Donovan say, Zach?

"Go out there and try and blow these guys out," LaVine relayed. "Message received."

"I think the way we played definitely represented what he wanted us to do," LaVine said. "I told you (media) guys yesterday I was going to come out and be more aggressive. We let a game slip away I think we could have capitalized on and I think it just brings a different energy to the team. Obviously, you've got to go out there and make your shots. But I think me being aggressive with my shot, jumper or getting downhill to create and get to the basket is a good thing. Just whatever I had to do to help us win, I did that tonight."

Zach LaVine went off for 39 points (16-of-25 shooting) in the win.

LaVine, who finished the game with 39 points, seven rebounds and a team high plus-26, then was asked did this need to be his script with so many Bulls absences.

"I've been doing this," he said with a shrug.

Like Ali said, It's not bragging if you can back it up.

LaVine's not bragging; he's just doing it. It is remarkable sometimes to watch him even as he is doubted so often because of the Bulls record. Sometimes denounced for not involving others because of his scoring, LaVine has made attempts to do so sometimes to the point, like Friday, of being too unselfish. So Donovan counseled him to score. No problem.

Well, not quite that simple since there's the two-way player thing with defense and engaging the opponent's defense more. There are some indomitable NBA offensive players like Harden, Durant, Irving, Curry. LaVine scores with the ease of any of them, creating space with his speed and athleticism and shooting the ball with the accuracy of a sniper.

He got the Bulls going with six of their first nine points in a 19-13 start—no early Donovan timeout this time—and by the end of the first quarter led the team in scoring, assists and rebounds and made his only three. He was five of six on threes for the game and in the Bulls best defensive quarter of the season had 11 points to Orlando's 12 in the second quarter, LaVine and the Magic equal with five field goals each.

"Man, he's truly special," marveled Valentine after his first game scoring at least 20 points since March 2018. "The capabilities he has and the things he can do each and every night, it just wows me. He does something new every night that I just sit there like, ‘Damn, he's really, really, really good.' You know what I'm saying? He can score at all three levels, turn it on and turn it off. Defensively when he wants to he can guard pretty much anybody in the league. There's just so much he can do out there. He's definitely an All-Star, superstar type player. I'm blessed to be his teammate. And also he's a good guy, too, so you root for him and you want him to do good as well.''

Zach LaVine

LaVine scored 22 of his 39 points in the second-half, including this thunderous jam.

Similarly with Valentine, who has handled a difficult Bulls career with as much grace and aplomb as one can manage. The former lottery pick and all-everything at Michigan State has had to overcome a series of injuries and then last season a participation incarceration so severe you got the sense the coach was even upset about Denzel Washington movies.

But Donovan liberated Valentine's captive game, which never was abundant in athleticism as much as sense and savvy. Valentine's game is organic, the sort of fundamental passing and opportunity shooting a coach like Donovan can appreciate.

So Valentine lately has been seeing the sun of game time, and with it growth. He's averaging 15.7 points and shooting 39 percent on nine of 23 on threes the last three games.

"Denzel has a really good feel of how to play," said Donovan. "He can put the ball on the floor, obviously. He's an elite shooter. But he's also a terrific passer. I really feel this with him: Everybody looks at him as maybe defense being something that is a challenge for him. I told him you have to work at it. He has done a really good job working at it. Like all of us, we're all not perfect. But he's putting forth that effort. I really respect him and he has given us some really, really good boosts off the bench and obviously a great boost starting tonight."

Which included 10 second quarter points when the Bulls took control after the 31-31 first quarter. Valentine scored seven straight points to start the second quarter and the Bulls were on their way. That Valentine wasn't on his way elsewhere after rarely playing last season perhaps was the larger surprise.

"Last year I didn't know what my future was going to be, where I was going to be at," said Valentine, who agreed to a one-year contract and will be a free agent after this season. "I try not to worry about that. Because if you worry about that you can get lost in the mix and just start thinking and making up scenarios. So what I tried to do was focus on what's at stake looking forward, trying to put my work in every day and just control what I can control and let the rest fall into place.'

Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine scored 20 points in the game for the first time since March of 2018.

"Obviously, the opportunity helps," Valentine acknowledged. "Being a starter and getting minutes gives me the opportunity to show what I can do, make an impact on a game. I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunities. I think I've gotten better. This is my fifth year in the league, fourth year playing (ankle surgery out one year). So I pretty much know what I can do. I know what I can bring to the table. Once I get that opportunity making the most of it."

The Bulls did this time on defense as well, bringing double teams and traps at Vucevic from different angles even though the Bulls were without most of their interior size. Cristiano Felicio did add an excellent second quarter defensive segment against Vucevic. The Bulls help defense has been improving substantially from sightseeing to at least showing up. Ryan Arcidiacono also made a rare appearance, though he clearly was in shape from all the jumping around he does on the sideline and was his best mosquito-in-summer annoying. The Bulls won by their largest margin of the season and had their biggest lead.

Perhaps they are waking up.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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