Zach LaVine is no MJ. No one is; there is no next Jordan. But if you never saw Jordan at his best or forgot what it looked like, it looked like Zach LaVine Saturday, 21 fourth quarter points among his 42, team highs in rebounds, steals and blocks, and loading up some very large men on his shoulders to carry the Bulls from a 15-point fourth quarter deficit to a 118-116 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Zach was dynamic," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "If that's not an All Star performance, I don't know what is; 27 in the second half, competed, boarded; just played. He's been a monster. That was a herculean effort tonight."
Zach goes off for 42 points vs Cavs
Even if it was the rebuilding Cavaliers, who fell to 12-31, there still was Kevin Love with 29 points, Tristan Thompson, a notorious Bulls irritant, and a flashy young backcourt that led the Cavs to an unfathomable 73-56 halftime lead making 12 of 17 three pointers. "They jumped on us in those first three quarters; they were playing better than us," acknowledged LaVine. The Cavaliers led 102-83 with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
This was another game surely headed for that Bulls hall of shameful losses, the Cavs finishing a six-game road trip and, like the Bulls, traveling into Chicago only Saturday morning instead of Friday night on the second of a back to back because of the snow. The Bulls were going to be shoveling up some explanations once again.
It wasn't just LaVine who enabled the Bulls to escape with a 16-28 record heading into Milwaukee Monday among the annual Martin Luther King Jr. series of games. The Bulls finally abandoned the showing/trapping pick and roll defense that teams, even the Cavs Saturday with inexperienced head coach John Beilein, have been exploiting. The defense which was fundamental early in the season in enabling the Bulls to vastly improve their defense, has been a sieve without injured Wendell Carter Jr. With Daniel Gafford also out, Luke Kornet starts at center and again scored well, 11 points in making three of five three pointers. But Kornet is ungainly and Love kept springing open for easy threes. Guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland then did as well.
"We picked up our energy," said LaVine. "It just took us a long time. They were making shots, knocking down their threes. They were killing in what we call out black (defense) when the big man was up. Kevin Love was slipping out of it every time and knocking it down. I think he had like 25 in the first half or it felt like it (23)."
Even with LaVine scoring three straight times in the middle of the third quarter, concluding with a double pump reverse dunk on a fast break, the Bulls couldn't trespass on the Cavs' inroads.
Zach with the reverse jam!
"Just wanted to put a little flair to it," said LaVine. "Sometimes those dunks can give the team a little bit of energy. You saw the next one. I was tired. I just barely touched the rim."
But there was plenty more of Zach to come.
LaVine has been on one of the great offensive runs in franchise history. This is an era of statistical esoterica. So LaVine's line of at least 42 points, six rebounds, three assists and five steals has only been matched or exceeded in franchise history by Jordan. And LaVine's 19 field goals added to the recondite as the most by a Bulls player since Scottie Pippen in 1997. No one is suggesting LaVine is at a level of those legends as LaVine hopes next month to merely be selected for his first NBA All-Star team.
But he's now averaging 25 points per game, 12th in the NBA, and 20th in the league in steals, a significant factor for a player whose defense is often criticized. LaVine in the fourth quarter had more steals than the entire Cavs team, the Bulls' only block and a pair of crucial rebounds between Love and Thompson to save possessions. Only the truly great ones do things like that. The difference is how often they do so. Consistency equals legacy in most everything.
In the last 10 games, LaVine is averaging 30.6 points, 5.1 rebounds (leading the team in rebounding the last three games), 4.3 assists and 1.9 steals. It was LaVine's second game of at least 40 points in eight days, ranking him fourth among Bulls all-time in most 40-point games, just two behind Jimmy Butler. It is his third game of at least 40 points this season, second among Eastern Conference players.
Though as LaVine will always note, it's not nearly enough without the team's on court success.
So the Bulls finally made the crucial defensive adjustment. They dropped the ball pressure and went to a switching defense to open the fourth quarter with a smaller, quicker lineup with Lauri Markkanen at center and Chandler Hutchison at power forward. Markkanen would finish with 17 points, Kris Dunn 10 with a bounce back defensive effort and Hutchison with a vital, game saving defensive play late.
"We were switching everything," said LaVine. "I felt we were a lot more athletic and faster; it was an aggressive lineup. We were out there making plays and we needed to; we were wearing them down. We made the adjustment that was good."
It also helped that the embattled former U. of Michigan coach, rookie Beilein, misread the Bulls change and left in a group of reserves without much scoring. Thus longer, taller and more active with the Cavs playing the overmatched Matthew Dellavedova, rookie Darius Garland, former Windy City product Alfonzo McKinnie and the sluggish Thompson, the Bulls produced six turnovers in the Cavs first seven possessions. The Bulls would end with 17 steals, forcing 26 turnovers for 33 points.
Before the Cavs bench could respond, the Bulls had gotten within 104-98, the United Center was engaged and LaVine was in the midst of his herculean 12 labors, slaying the Cavs, capturing the momentum for the Bulls and helping the Bulls steal a game that seemed long decided.
There were scores in transition off some of the turnovers, but also LaVine eschewing the season long flirtation with three pointers and driving into the maw of the Cavs defense for score after score.
"We were getting our (butts) kicked," noted LaVine. "I didn't think we should be down that much to a team we should be competing with or beating. We had to flip it around and if we didn't it was going to be ugly. It's make or break time; we're not going to get back in the game playing nicely. So I'm going to attack the body, try to make them make a call. I'll take that on myself.
"It's something I felt I had to do tonight," LaVine said. "I felt I had to step into that role. I felt I could give us that jump and take over and win the game. I got it going to the hoop. I was using more midrange on the back to back. We made a lot of defensive stops. Chandler came in and made some really big plays, Kris Dunn's defense was incredible."
Dunn always seems to get credit for about half the steals he makes, forcing one when the Bulls finally took their first lead since early in the second quarter at 108-107 with 4:38 left, drawing an offensive foul on Love a few moments earlier and a steal to set up LaVine going all the way for a 110-109 lead with 3:39 left.
Boylen said he's been calling Dunn a cephalopod, which is a fairly ugly creature, a predatory mollusk like a squid or octopus. Boylen means it admiringly.
"We joke about the guy being a cephalopod, extremely fast and an agile being; he was all over the place," said Boylen.
Dunn was mostly amused by the reference in a jovial Bulls locker room after Thad Young had given LaVine a paper cup water shower during LaVine's post game interview with NBCSports Chicago.
"That what he calls me," said Dunn. "I already know what I call myself, a dawg. Cephalopod? Never heard of it. He's been calling me that all season. He feels once I get going on the defensive end the term cephalopod, his words, speedy agile, athletic, basically a monster. He feels once I get going, I can be that. But I've got a lot more work to do."
Once the avalanche starts, there's little chance of getting away and pretty much nowhere to run. Same with those NBA comebacks. Though the Cavs finally substituted and took a 111-110 lead on Love free throws with 3:28 left. the result seemed inevitable. Markkanen and Tomas Satoransky briefly supported LaVine with baskets. And the Cavs almost tied it with 20.1 seconds left when with the Bulls leading 114-111, Markkanen fouled Love on a layup for a three-point play.
"I was just trying to run him off the line and not give him the three pointer and hoping we had someone on the back side," said Markkanen. "We didn't, so he ended up getting a wide open layup. I didn't think I fouled him. I was surprised (about the call)."
Boylen smartly had kept his challenge and the foul call was overturned, leaving the Cavs trailing 114-113 with 20.1 seconds left and the Cavs needing to foul. LaVine then duped Garland on an inbounds pass and drove baseline for a score and three-point play.
"This is my (stuff)," LaVine shouted toward the Bulls bench and into the stands.
It was 117-113 on the LaVine three point play. But the Cavs out of a timeout got a three from Cedi Osman with 11.9 seconds left to draw within 117-116. Instead of inbounding and the presumed foul, the Bulls called timeout. Kornet was assigned the inbounds pass. He obviously looked toward LaVine, who was doubled. Instead of going to the open Satoransky, Kornet forced a high pass to LaVine, which went out of bounds for a turnover. Cavs ball with 8.6 seconds left. Oh no!
The Cavs were about to steal it back.
They threw in to Love, who turned right in the lane to drive at Hutchison, who also had four steals. Hutchison did well to bump and stay with Love. But the weary veteran couldn't get much lift and attempted a driving bank shot which fell well short with 2.7 seconds left. Dunn rebounded and clutched the ball. He was fouled and made one of two. But the Cavs didn't have a timeout left and had to force a fullcourt pass, which Hutchison grabbed to end the game.
And continue what's been lately the legend of Zach.