Zach LaVine scores 25 as Bulls beat Hornets for third straight win

Zach LaVine led the way with 25 points, 9 assists, and 6 rebounds as the Bulls added a third straight win, defeating the Charlotte Hornets 123-110 on Friday night. Lauri Markkanen added 23 points and Coby White dropped 18 points with 8 assists. The Bulls won the turnover battle (15-20) and the assists battle (33 to 22) in the victory.

These Bulls are really good. No, really. Yes, the Chicago Bulls. The now 7-8 Bulls.

Not great, though perhaps we can revisit that Saturday night after the Bulls return to the United Center to play the defending champion Los Angeles LeBrons following Friday's impressive 123-110 Bulls victory in Charlotte.

"I think our confidence is really high with each other," Coby White was saying after the Bulls third consecutive win, sadly in some respects for the first time in two years. Though it seems there are a lot of those sort of negative positives this season with the best start in four years, the highest scoring team run in 50 years, and what seems like the beginning of the kind of era of good feelings that would even make James Monroe proud.

The Bulls finally seem to have discovered a unified team. It's the new Bulls Doctrine.

"We all believe in each other," said White, who had 18 points and eight assists. "We all believe that we have a really, really good team. We're getting better each and every game. We're all bought in this year. We all believe in each other. We all love playing with each other. I feel like we're just growing. We have a lot of confidence in each other and we all trust each other on the court no matter who's out there playing. I think we're right there. We're starting to make that leap.

Coby White scored 18 points and dished out eight assists in the win.

"We feel like we should be well above .500 right now," White said. "A couple of those losses really hurt us and we don't like that feeling as a team. Finishing games has been our struggle since the beginning of the year. The last three games we finished really well. And tonight was a really good game for us."

And for Lauri Markkanen, who had 23 points and is now averaging 19.4 for the season, and especially for Zach LaVine, who is developing into a complete player as we watch. LaVine led the Bulls with 25 points, his season average now 27.2. Big Three with White averaging 16.6 and both he and LaVine averaging around six assists.

Which is almost the afterthought considering the effect LaVine has had. LaVine led the team with nine assists, having just two turnovers as he deftly guided the offense and helped keep the Bulls in control the entire game. Charlotte's last lead was 20 seconds into the second quarter.

LaVine attempted just 12 shots while making eight, drawing the defense and passing, the ball hopping around so much for 33 assists it seemed filled with helium. If it were hockey with assists credited to the player before the player, LaVine would have doubled his count.

LaVine led the way with an efficient performance of 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Chicago's win over Charlotte.

"He's growing, he's maintaining," White said about his backcourt partner. "Obviously he's having an unbelievable year. He's being Zach. I see all the work he puts in off the court, so it's not a surprise to me. But it's fun playing with somebody that talented."

Fun really just to watch as LaVine was as masterful as it gets in the game, adding a steal and a block, a perfect six for six free throws among just a dozen for the Bulls and crucial defensive plays. And when the Hornets made a bit of a fourth quarter run to get within 103-97, Bulls coach Billy Donovan reinserted LaVine. He assisted on a Denzel Valentine score, drove for a pair of free throws and made a three on a White assist as it was the Bulls with a 15-6 closing run to take the buzz out of the Hornets.

"Just coming in with a different mindset and trying to do the right thing," said LaVine. "I'm just trying to read the right play out there. If that's scoring, assisting, defending, whatever it calls for. I feel like I'm thinking about the game a lot more this year and even when I'm on the bench trying to keep everybody all on the same page. Obviously, the vets on the team are helping me with that; coach is helping me with that.

"I'm starting to figure out where everybody is going to be at and what we're running late game and who needs the ball," said LaVine. "We need to have a little more consistency throughout the game, but I think it's coming together. It's me just understanding over the last three years, you can't do it by yourself. I think I took a step in the right direction over the offseason of looking at how I can try to help my teammates. Trusting and having guys healthy also helps. We're creating a lot of open shots. A lot of it is buying in and not trying to repeat what we've been doing over the last couple years. We've changed a lot."

It's too soon to book the champagne, and at 7-8 not quite the betting favorite for the Finals yet. But sometimes you begin to see a change before the sea change. This Bulls team that always seemed to expect the worst, thus making it a self-fulfilling prophesy, appears invigorated with the sort of confidence that makes losing a surprise. There's no real "ah ha" moment for that, though if it continues it's likely somebody will make up one.

And three games isn't threatening the 1972 Lakers quite yet.

It's more the style of play, the "trust" so often spoken about that leads from the good shot to the better shot, something only rumored in recent seasons. It doesn't occur every game, but it's happening more regularly. This was the fourth time this season the Bulls had at least 30 assists in a game, but the third time in the last five games. The Bulls shot 52 percent overall, mixing inside and outside play with 43 three-point attempts and 62 inside points.

Coby White scored 18 points and dished eight assists in the win.

Again the reserves were both eclectic and electric, a 46-20 advantage with Garrett Temple scoring 15 points and Otto Porter Jr. 13, including five points in the last two minutes so the Hornets didn't get any ideas. But perhaps most impressive was Thad Young with eight points, six rebounds, six assists and a team best plus 19 rating. Young effectively played point center in a Joakim Noah/Tom Boerwinkle style, directing offense and making plays in his unique way with Wendell Carter Jr. out injured. Daniel Gafford started and was predictably energetic, though the Bulls trailed early 19-13. That's when Young entered to keep the offense oiled and add a few basket, including a fast break score after a turnover.

The Bulls were especially bothersome and handsy on defense creating turnovers that led to 26 points with 16 fast breaks. The Bulls were their usual occasionally careless with 17 turnovers. And while that will never satisfy Donovan, it's really part of the game when you play quicker as the Bulls have, move the ball and have more possessions with higher scoring as the Bulls remain one of the league's most prolific scoring teams.

The Bulls despite being smaller without Carter had 15 offensive rebounds led by Young's four, an 18-6 margin in second chance points. Yes, light up that hustle board for the Bulls.

"We had, I think, (17) turnovers tonight, but we didn't turn the ball over the last four minutes of the game," Donovan pointed out. "We generated really good shots. We didn't foul them and put them to the free throw line. We did things that if we were gonna lose that game in the last five minutes, I didn't feel like we were beating ourselves. There's been games this year. I think that's the process they have to go through to learn how to win, and I think they're learning that now a little bit more."

Also thanks to Donovan and his fatherly arm-around-the-shoulder, in-your-face honest tough love approach that appears to be working so well. Players have continued to say how Donovan holds them accountable for mistakes, yet how much they welcome that.

"He challenges you in different ways and I can respect that," said LaVine. "I'm a pretty straight up guy and I like that. So when I talk to him on little things it's not only, ‘Good game, bad game,' it's the intricacies of, How did you help? How are you leading? It's helping me a lot."

Donovan provided a good example discussing a huddle during the game.

Something we've heard for several years with this Bulls team and even to start the season in those big losses against Indiana, Atlanta and Milwaukee was about "putting their heads down" when things went badly. Not so much anymore.

"So much of guys' identity is their ability to put the ball in the basket," Donovan explained. "Most of these guys in the NBA are really good at putting the ball in the basket. And when that's not happening, like I thought we had a couple possessions at the end of the third quarter where we generated really, really good looks and I could see it, like, ‘OK, here we go.' They're down. They missed some shots.

"I said," Donovan related, "‘I wish we got that upset when we broke down defensively and just gave up a layup. I don't see you guys get upset on missing shots. We need to get upset on defense, stuff we've got control over.'"

The Hornets had reduced a 12-point third quarter Bulls lead to seven. But Porter scored on a Tomas Satoransky pass as he returned for the first time after his Covid diagnosis. Temple made a three on an excellent Denzel Valentine drive and pass, and Temple and Porter split another two scores to get the Bulls lead back to 95-83 after three quarters. Hush, hush sweet Charlotte.

"Shout out to our vets, Otto, GT and Thad; big part of our success," said White. "They are showing tremendous leadership on and off the court. You can go to them about anything and they are being true leaders, true vets and instill us with confidence. They won before in this league, so they know what it takes."

The Bulls had what it takes in this game, again exorcizing even more canards. This was the third time LaVine and Markkanen scored at least 20 points in the same game, and Markkanen has only played eight games.

Markkanen scored 23 points on 10-17 shooting in the win over Charlotte.

"Obviously (Zach's) playing at a really high level right now," said Markkanen. "Not just scoring; we all know he can do that. He's going to do it every night, but I think he's doing a really good job of getting other guys involved, a great job all around. He's rebounding the ball well for a guard (and among leave leaders in assists for shooting guards). Obviously there was talks early in previous years that we wouldn't be able to (score together), but I think we've done a great job; we work together."

There was a lot of that.

It wasn't such a great night for the two heralded rookies, Patrick Williams back home for the first time hesitant shooting with four points in 16 minutes. LaMelo Ball had seven points in 17 minutes, but played only about a minute in the second half as the Hornets tried to come from behind. They were led by Gordon Hayward with 34 points as they fell out of a tie with the Bulls to 6-9.

The Bulls are now tied for eighth in the East, and here come the Lakers.

"Last game (last second loss in LA Jan. 8) we fought all the way to the end," White noted. "I think it was all about finishing the game. If we would have finished the game well, I feel like we would have won. So focus on being tough, competing and making the winning plays for all four quarters."

And see what LeBron and AD have to say about that. Measuring stick at Game 16?