Zach LaVine had some choice words for Josh Jackson last night, and chances are those same words will come out of my mouth if the NBA’s final All-Star roster doesn’t include the Bulls’ star guard.
Seriously, if individual performances could talk, LaVine’s 37-point outing against the Pistons would be daring NBA coaches not to give him his first nod. While the performance may have come against the Eastern Conference’s worst team, it still spearheaded a ridiculous 25-point comeback victory – the largest in the NBA this season. From start to finish it was a game that highlighted every single improvement LaVine has made in his 7th season in the league … so let’s talk about it.
LaVine isn’t just a scorer anymore; he is arguably one of the league’s most elite scorers. His 37 points against the Pistons marked his 13th 30-point performance of the season, which is a feat only Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and Stephen Curry have accomplished thus far.
His efficient 14-22 shooting performance from the field and 4-6 clip from downtown was just another reminder of his improved efficiency this season. LaVine’s effective field goal percentage sits at 61.2 percent, which ranks in the league’s 97th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass, His 28.5 points per game may make him one of nine-player to be averaging 28-plus, but the efficiency in which he is shooting on a nightly basis is practically unmatched. Out of the other players dropping at least 28 points per game, only Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are also shooting at least 52 percent from the field and 43 percent from downtown. And I think it’s important to mention that LaVine has done all of this without missing a single game, whereas Durant and Irving have missed 10 games apiece.
The shooting percentages at all three levels are career-highs for LaVine, as he is draining 68 percent of his shots at the rim, 46 percent of his mid-range jumpers, and (as previously noted) 43 percent of his long-range takes. While he failed to knock down a true mid-range shot last night, he sure did demonstrate why those numbers are the way they are, especially at the rim. In the third quarter with the team down 61-43, LaVine relentlessly attacked the basket and knocked down five of his six attempts. He finished with 15 points in the 3rd quarter to put the Bulls right back into the thick of things, which brings me to my next point.
The Winning Plays
Year after year, analysts and fans alike shower LaVine with comments about empty stats, saying that his bucket-hunting ways do little to promote winning. Well, last night LaVine was practically single-handedly responsible for putting the team in a position to succeed, and that is something he has started to time and again this season.
As things currently stand, LaVine is averaging the second-most points in the 4th quarter (8.0) behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo. In total, he has scored 217 points in the final frame, which is by far the most in the league (Antetokounmpo is in second at 193).
LaVine becomes even more tied to a winning effort when we look at his clutch stats (the last five minutes of a game when that game is within at least 5 points). He is second in points scored in the clutch this season, behind only Damian Lillard (min 10 games in the clutch), whom I think we’d all assume is … I don’t know … a pretty freakin’ clutch player. LaVine also surprisingly has hauled in 15 rebounds, which is 10th in the NBA and tied for the second-highest among guards (James Harden leads with 18).
The other key ingredient to transforming LaVine into a more consistent winning player has been his playmaking. He is dishing out a career-high 5.2 assists per game, and the eye-test shows that he is looking for teammates far more actively than ever before. The Pistons ran with a wide range of coverages against LaVine over the course of the game, but he was still able to repeatedly find the open man and set up the right look. Most of those smart passes will not show up in the box score, but they will show up on the film.
LaVine’s ability to read and react to the Pistons’ defense helped set up five different scores in the final 6:37 of the game. He started with a bullet assist to Carter Jr. underneath the basket and followed that up by taking advantage of several pass-to-assist opportunities. He noticed the double-team before passing to an open Thaddeus Young who hit the cutting Tomas Satoransly for a quick layup. A couple of plays later, LaVine noticed the double-team again before taking a quick dribble to set up a clean bounce pass to Young, who this time found a wide-open Patrick Williams for the score. LaVine also was responsible for starting the quick ball movement that led to both Coby White’s and Patrick Williams’ game-clinching 3-pointers. So, yeah, it was just good decision-making after good decision-making.
Stephen Noh shares a few of the passes I was talking about in the clips below:
Bulls' clutch offensive rating* vs. Pistons: 166.7
Their clutch offensive rating before last night's game: 107.8.
What was the big difference? Mixing up LaVine hero ball w/ making the right pass out of doubles.
*NBA defines "clutch" as last 5 mins of a 5 point game pic.twitter.com/6gNEctXeVo
— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) February 18, 2021
LaVine plays defense now. Does he play it well? Eh, not particularly, but he is playing it more active than he has in years past.
Wednesday night’s battle against the Pistons pretty well demonstrated LaVine’s newfound effort on this end of the ball, and head coach Billy Donovan shared with us why after the game.
“When Jerami Grant started to get going, he came over to me and said, ‘can I take him?’ And I said, ‘absolutely, have at it.’ And, you know what, he did a really good job. Some of his points late were probably more in our coverages because I was a little bit worried. We had a cushion there of five, six points, I didn’t want to start trapping him and having Plumlee spray the ball all over the place and potentially give up 3’s and offensive rebounds. And Zach fought like crazy, and he battled.
Look at Grant’s career-high 43 points and you will probably laugh at what Donovan just said. Look at the film, and you’ll get it. LaVine invited the Grant challenge far after he was already hot from the field, and he legitimately did a solid job taking him out of rhythm. On the first five shot attempts where LaVine guarded Grant in the 3rd quarter, Grant converted on only one look, and it happened to be a rather difficult fadeaway jumper. LaVine played physical but clean, and it played a pivotal role in the team’s ability to carve away the Pistons’ lead.
Now, in the 4th quarter, Grant did go back on a little scoring run with LaVine guarding him. However, as Donovan said, the gameplan was to keep the Pistons at the rim and force them to make tough shots, and that just happened to be what Grant did.
Here are some other good examples of LaVine’s more aggressive defensive effort from last night:
— Salim (@JordanDynasty) February 18, 2021
You know what, no. I’m going to let what is written above and the tweet below speak for itself.
LaVine is an All-Star, and there is no changing my mind.
Zach LaVine this season:
Only two players in NBA history have averaged 28/5/5 on 50/40/80% shooting for a whole season — Steph Curry and Larry Bird (3x). pic.twitter.com/BBRvY9ZMN2
— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 18, 2021