Bulls' LaVine is scaling the superstar learning curve
The sample size is growing with the Bulls' new lineup and positive signs from Zach LaVine are soaring.
LaVine got a new contract last summer, but this season was a referendum on whether the hyper-athletic shooting guard could become the kind of star who could lead a team to the playoffs.
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Outlook: Here's another chance at some mock playoff practice for the Bulls, since they'll play consecutive games against the Pistons, just as they did last weekend against Atlanta. ... Detroit (31-31) is in good shape to make the playoffs, currently tied for sixth place in the East with Brooklyn. It would be the Pistons' second postseason berth in the last 10 years. ... PF Blake Griffin leads the team at 25.2 ppg. C Andre Drummond leads the league in rebounds with 15.1 and is averaging 17.6 points. PG Reggie Jackson (15.3 points, 4.3 assists) hasn't developed into a star like the Pistons envisioned. ... The Bulls have lost five straight in the series, including two this season, but teams haven't met since Nov. 30.
Next: Detroit Pistons, 11 a.m. Sunday at Little Caesars Arena
-- Mike McGraw
LaVine's performances are still littered by bad mistakes, but he hit a nice peak on national television Wednesday, scoring 39 points when the Bulls beat Philadelphia at the United Center.
"We're in a good little rhythm now," LaVine said after the game. "When you are rebuilding you have to take your bumps and understand you have to build your way up. We're a young, exciting team. We have elite firepower. We have some of the best players in the NBA on this team, I feel like. And we're going to change it around really fast."
LaVine seems to have conquered perhaps the most difficult step in this process -- the ability to score late in games, and get his shot off while the defense is stacked to stop him.
Wednesday's game-winner was a bit of a fluke. As LaVine curled around a screen, both Philadelphia defenders, Jimmy Butler and Mike Scott, inexplicably followed screener Robin Lopez, leaving a gaping path through the lane.
But LaVine was really good throughout the fourth quarter, hitting 6 of 8 shots for 13 points in the final 7:23. He took just one 3-pointer, and made it, and scored in a variety of ways, driving all the way to the basket and also stopping for some high-percentage floaters and pullups in the lane. The Bulls trailed by 10 with six minutes left and finished on a 20-9 run.
The only real mistake by LaVine late in the game was one turnover when he drove toward the basket and threw a pass that was stolen by Ben Simmons. That could have been a deflator, because the Bulls had a chance to take the lead and ended up trailing by 2 with 2:11 left after a fast-break foul.
But LaVine made nice progress from the previous night in Indiana, when he scored 7 straight points to put the Bulls ahead midway through the fourth quarter, then stacked some mistakes that turned the game in a bad direction.
LaVine held onto the ball too long to create a 24-second violation, threw away a careless pass, was nonchalant on a defensive rebound and had it taken away.
"We covered all those plays," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said. "We respect the good, and evaluate and critique the bad. That's what my job is. What I try to get our guys to do is have that discernment in the moment -- what's a good shot, what's a good play.
"Those are the learning moments and in a way I'm thankful for those moments and in a way it's frustrating. We want to win and we want to grow."
Since making the trade for Otto Porter Jr., the Bulls have gone 7-5 overall, 7-3 in the games Porter has played. LaVine is averaging 27.0 points and 5.5 assists, while shooting 51.3 percent overall and 45.5 percent from 3-point range. Those are certainly all-star caliber numbers.
Porter assessed Wednesday's final play, pointing out the defensive help was slow to arrive because the Sixers were concerned about he and Lauri Markkanen waiting in the corners.
"I feel like this sends a message to the league that we are getting ready for the future," Porter said. "The chemistry is clicking. We're getting better every game. Each game we want to take something and learn from it. That's going to prepare us for the future."
Porter was asked if the Bulls are planning to be spoilers in the final 16 games, even while many fans are concerned about the draft lottery chances.
"We're just thinking about the future," Porter said. "And I think the fans are thinking about the future too."