Zach LaVine vs. Bradley Beal headlines Monday night matchup
Sam Smith looks at the career similarities between the two prolific scorers.
Remind Me Later •
It's not Magic vs. Larry, but a Monday night matchup between the Bulls (9-13) and Washington Wizards (5-15) features a battle between two of the NBA's most electrifying scorers in Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal.
It's always the game that matters most. Did the team win or lose? But no sport emphasizes the individual like the NBA.
It's one of those special nights Monday in the United Center because of Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal.
The 9-13 Bulls, though improving and at least for now a playoff possibility, host the Washington Wizards, who are 5-15 and seemingly on the way to one of the poorest seasons in their franchise history. Their defense, allowing the most points per game at more than 120 and highest shooting percentage at nearly 50 percent, may be one of the worst in league annals.
LaVine and Beal could even be matched against one another, though both undoubtedly will say it's about the team.
"I'll try to read the game the best I can," LaVine was saying Saturday night after the Bulls victory over the Orlando Magic. "Every game isn't going to be perfect. But if I come with this mindset I think it's going to be good for us. Then just recognizing if guys are hot or if I'm drawing a double team and kick it out. I'll do whatever I've got to do."
But these viewing opportunities with players like LaVine and Beal don't come along that often, the chance to watch two of the top offensive players in the league against each other. Perhaps it's not like Bird and Magic or Russell and Wilt or Oscar and West or Frazier and Monroe because of the standings of the teams. But LaVine and Beal are two of the most productive and irrepressible scorers in the NBA. Really not only this season, but in this era.
Last season, Beal scored 53 points in a game against the Bulls. This season Beal is leading the NBA in scoring at more than 33 per game, his second straight season averaging at least 30 per game. He's had a 60-point game this season and twice more than 40 points.
And LaVine may even have been better.
The Bulls guard has a 45-point game and Saturday's win in Orlando was his second game with 39 points. LaVine probably has been the more versatile player this season with double figure rebounds and assists games. Though LaVine is 10th in scoring at 27 per game, he's averaging more assists and rebounds per game than Beal and shooting higher percentages across the board overall and in three-pointers. Beal also is averaging about a third more shots per game than LaVine at about 25, the most in the NBA.
"Obviously every game isn't going to be perfect, but I feel like if I come with the right mentality it's going to be better than not," LaVine said. "I'll continue to try and get better. If my aggressive play helps, we'll do that. I'm going to try my best. If that's going out there and stop somebody defensively, create, I feel like I have a lot of tools I can give. I've obviously, progressed in my game, and mentally each year I feel like I've been there. I just want to continue to get better and help the team."
This is not to diminish Beal's play or accomplishments. He's one of the elite players in the NBA and a deserving All-Star. But so is LaVine, which is part of the appeal of their matchup Monday.
It's always special when players of that stature face off, and especially when they play the same position.
Their journeys have been somewhat different with curious similarities.
The 6-3 Beal is from St. Louis and played one year at the University of Florida for Billy Donovan, who now coaches the Bulls. Beal now plays for Scott Brooks, whom Donovan succeed for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Beal was the third pick in the 2012 NBA draft after Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Beal regarded then as primarily a catch-and-shoot guard joining John Wall with the Wizards. In his second season, the 27-year-old Beal finished second to former Bull Marco Belinelli in the All-Star Three-point contest.
Beal averaged almost 25 games per season missed with injuries his first four years with a wrist fracture and several leg injuries. His longevity was frequently questioned. It's often the fate of players leaving college so quickly. But in his fifth and sixth seasons, Beal played every game and led the league in minutes in 2019. Beal and Wall clashed several times apparently over their importance to the team before Wall's injuries the last two years elevated Beal to team leader. He was an All-Star in 2018 and 2019. He's played in 40 playoff games with a 22.7 per game average. The Wizards are 21-19 in those games with a 4-1 victory over the Bulls in the 2014 first round.
LaVine, 25, played one year at UCLA before being the 13th selection in the 2014 draft after Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh, Elfrid Payton, Doug McDermott and Dario Saric. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were Nos. 1 and 2 in that draft before Joel Embiid. LaVine, a two-time All-Star Slam Dunk champion, was on the way to a breakout season in 2016-17 playing with Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns when he tore his ACL. He was part of the Jimmy Butler trade in June 2017 and came back for the Bulls in early 2018, though limited. He played 24 games. He then recovered to average 23.7 in 2019 and 25.5 last season, though the Bulls were going through a rebuilding project with multiple lottery appearances, roster tryouts and coaching changes. His Bulls now seem somewhat ahead of Beal's Wizards even as Washington traded Wall for Russell Westbrook.
It's not rare for stars wars with players in the NBA like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic. But it's always special when scorers as dynamic as Beal and LaVine are matched up and perhaps against one another.
The Bulls in late December swept the two-game series with the Wizards that also began the multiple Bulls Covid absences. The Bulls held Beal and Westbrook each below 30 points in both games.
"Zach, he's had trials and tribulations throughout his career," noted Denzel Valentine Saturday. "Going to Minnesota (at 19) and then coming here, coming off an ACL and being thrown into the fire like, ‘Alright, the Chicago Bulls are yours.' Trying to at 23 be the best player on a top three market team; that's a lot of pressure. I think he's gotten better each and every year. It's amazing to see that he's gotten better and he has a bright future ahead of him. I'm just excited to see where it goes.''
Those things cannot be predicted in the baffling and often unsettled sports world.
So the best advice is to enjoy what's ahead. Which is LaVine and Beal.
If not a matchup of eternal legends, perhaps it's a glimpse of what it was like to see Dirk against Paul Pierce, Vince Carter against Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen against Reggie Miller.
It's the sort of night that makes a Monday in February special even when there's no more football.
It all comes down, at least for one night, to Monday Night.
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