Bulls storm back to knock off Houston, LaVine scores 36

This point in the season is when the great ones begin taking control of the games and carrying their teams, like Saturday night Steph Curry with 36 to strap down the Bucks, Jayson Tatum’s 34 in Boston’s overtime win, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler Friday night with their 30-plus games to push their teams to victories. And, yes, Zach LaVine right there with all the big guys Saturday with yet another huge game, 36 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the Bulls late game push for their 119-111 win in Houston.

LaVine after scoring at least 35 points in five of the team’s first 47 games now has scored at least 35 points in six of the Bulls’ last 16 games, averaging 29.4 points on 54 percent shooting and 41 percent on threes in that stretch. LaVine is averaging 31.4 points per game since the All-Star break with 50 percent on threes.

Not that you get locker room t-shirts and hats for it, but the win for the 31-36 Bulls inches them into 10th place ahead of the Washington Wizards for the final post season play-in position.

No one is celebrating quite yet, perhaps other than some exuberant sideline impulses from the Bulls reserves with a late game DeMar DeRozan lob to LaVine for a score and a clinching three pointer from Patrick Beverley in his best game as a Bull with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. But it’s been LaVine’s play the last month that has even given the Bulls a chance for a counteroffensive. 

And to counter the offensive views of this season.

He’s back on the attack!

“Zach really got going in that first half,” noted Bulls coach Billy Donovan, LaVine with 20 points in the first half to rally the Bulls back from a 13-point second quarter deficit.

Zach LaVine dribbles against the Houston Rockets.
Zach LaVine scored 36 points (14-26 FG) in the win over the Rockets.

“Being aggressive,” said LaVine. “First half I felt we needed that. Kind of got me tired, but that’s why we have DeMar and Vooch (Nikola Vučević, 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists) and Pat and Coby (White), and all these guys, stay aggressive. You attack; you make them make a decision.”

The decision for the opposition generally became deciding who was going to inbound the ball since LaVine made 14 of 26 shots, many driving past, through and around defenders like he was doing one of those driving maneuverability tests. It’s been LaVine’s hegemony that has kept the Bulls competitive since All-Star break, shooting at least 50 percent in seven of the last eight games and overall 58 percent in that span, efficient while also being audaciously spectacular. 

“Since the All-Star break we’ve been much better (offensively),” Donovan observed. “I’ve said this many times (about LaVine). When he is aggressive and playing downhill and taking catch and shoots it’s great. He’ll probably at the end of the year is going to shoot close to 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. When he does that and is decisive, it (also) opens things for everyone because he’s unselfish; he’ll spray the ball out. DeMar and he can both create. With Zach there aren’t too many shots you don’t want to him to take. If he can get to his spots he’s pretty elite.”

Against the Rockets, as it has been in many of the Bulls recent wins, LaVine’s play enabled the Bulls to tread water and remain close until someone else could get in lockstep.

LaVine, Vučević and Beverley combined to make 11 threes, the Bulls making 15 of 32 threes to offset the Houston shooting. It was the Bulls who cornered the vital statistics this time, 13 offensive rebounds for a 19-9 margin on second chance points, 23 points off turnovers and 16 fast break points. The Bulls shot 51 percent overall and 47 percent on threes.

DeRozan added 27 points, but has not looked quite the same in recent weeks despite dismissing any injury issues. DeRozan shot nine of 21, the sixth time in the last eight games since All-Star break he’s failed to shoot 50 percent. Most of DeRozan’s misses have seemed to hit the front rim, suggesting as they say in hockey a lower extremity problem.

DeMar DeRozan dribbles against the Houston Rockets.
DeMar DeRozan scored 27 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out five assists.

This time the someone else was Beverley from the Rockets diaspora.

Beverley had been shooting 24 percent on threes with the Bulls. But he made four of five including that late one with 2:07 left in the game and the Bulls leading 112-106. Beverley also surprised his former team with two threes late in the first half after the Bulls had fallen behind 37-24 to the young, athletic rebuilding Rockets.

“Energy, heart, toughness, vocal. He gets us going,” LaVine said about Beverley. “You can see how much he cares about winning; he cares about  his teammates. We definitely needed somebody like that. It shows with the impact he has on the game every night.”

Though the inflection point for this game — and we’ll continue to say the season with so few games remaining and so many teams loitering around that play-in tournament possibility — came with the Bulls falling behind double digits with seconds left in the third quarter and 98-89 about a minute into the fourth quarter.

It would be a devastating setback to be swept by the now 15-52 Rockets. And coming off the fine wine of a win in Denver with three home games this week and a chance to move into stronger play-in position. Ninth-place Toronto is just a half game ahead of the Bulls.

Not that others’ failure is the Bulls’ plan, especially since it would seem notably gratuitous.

“Our schedule is challenging,” Donovan pointed out. “We come out of this and have a few days when we can practice, which will be good. But then you have Sacramento, Minnesota, Miami, Philly twice, so we’ve just to focus on us. Even if we still were in 11th, keep the focus on us and do what’s next in front of us. We’ve just got to keep getting better and focusing on us. That’s the most important thing. A lot can happen in 15 games. I’ve never been a big believer in sitting around and hoping someone else drops some games; we’ve got to worry about us.”

Which the fourth quarter epitomized in what’s becoming a consistent defensive game with Donovan using both Beverley and Alex Caruso as primary closers with LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević.

The Bulls swept away for the win with a 32-16 fourth quarter that featured a nearly four-minute stretch when the Rockets went scoreless. Some of the highlights of the fourth quarter were:

  • DeRozan drawing an offensive foul.
  • Beverley with one of his five offensive rebounds, that one leading to a DeRozan three-point play score for a 98-98 tie with eight minutes left.
  • Alex Caruso with a steal in which he finished with a layup on a Beverley assist to get the Bulls back tied at 102.
  • Caruso with two more steals disrupting Rockets drives, the second resulting in a LaVine score on a three quarter court drive to give the Bulls a 108-106 lead with 4:16 left, their first lead since 2-0.
  • LaVine’s defense on a Kevin Martin Jr. drive that became his lob score on the DeRozan pass (DeRozan would not get one high enough later to LaVine for a turnover).
  • Caruso with a finish after Vučević's sturdy vertical play thwarted a Rockets drive, the Bulls making it 112-106 with 3:04 left. 
  • And then came Beverley’s three, and a lot of commentary from Beverley to his former fans in the stands. Though, as we know, the Bulls colors are not just to represent the red states.
Patrick Beverley added 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the win.

“I felt like we stayed the course,” said Donovan. “They are a hard team to guard because they are fast and athletic and have guys who can put the ball on the floor and beat you off the dribble. Patrick Beverley gave us a great game on both ends of the floor. But the biggest thing is I felt there was resolve there. I thought all five guys were really good (defensively to close the game). There were some big plays. I thought Vooch had a big verticality at the basket, which was important. Patrick (Beverley) got inside and stripped the ball a couple of times. I thought all of them in there collectively did a good job; we got stops when we needed to get stops.”

But they can’t stop now. And it seems like LaVine isn’t about to let them. Like Voltaire once said, man has to be the hammer or the anvil. LaVine’s now doing the pounding.

“Winning two games in a row on the road on the NBA is not easy,” said LaVine. “Just shows the type of team we can be if we continue to do the right things.”

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