Zach LaVine Shook Off the Cobwebs Against the Raptors

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Zach LaVine Shook Off the Cobwebs Against the Raptors

Chicago Bulls

When Zach LaVine was ruled out of the first two regular season games of the season, I grabbed an inhaler.

The Chicago Bulls had just signed the two-time All-Star to a five-year, $215.2 million maximum contract. The front office repeatedly insisted that his offseason knee surgery wasn’t worth any long-term concern. The expectation quickly became that he would be fully ready to go for the start of the regular season, and his full participation in training camp suggested as much.

However, come opening night, LaVine was sitting in street clothes on the bench due to “injury management.” He then sat out one more game before making his season debut during the team’s home opener on October 22. While LaVine played reasonably well, the Bulls’ 32-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t calm any nerves, nor did LaVine’s inefficient play over the next couple of games.

In his first seven contests of the season, LaVine looked more like someone doing … well … a half-decent Zach LaVine impression. He had some flashy stepback jumpers and the occasional acrobatic finish at the rim, but something felt off. The efficient scoring that has made him increasingly lethal in recent years was nowhere to be found. He shot 5-15 one night, 6-13 the next, and 8-19 the following. When you have the history that LaVine does, his mere presence still had a positive impact on the Bulls. But his inability to play efficient basketball was a concern.

Indeed, what was most troubling was the fact that he just couldn’t seem to convert at the rim. Before Monday night’s game against the Raptors, LaVine had been shooting a throw-up-in-mouth-worthy 44 percent within 4 feet of the basket, per Cleaning the Glass. Fortunately, he was getting the free-throw line at a decent rate. But his lack of downhill explosiveness was having a real impact on his normally elite three-level scoring.

I mean, last season he shot nearly 70 percent at the rim and held an effective field goal percentage that sat in the league’s 72nd percentile. And that was on a bum knee! The year before that, when fully healthy, his effective field goal percentage ranked in the 91st percentile! So while I wasn’t worried that this version of LaVine was completely gone over the first few games, I was worried about when he might make his heroic return. He apparently didn’t participate in any 5-on-5 action post-surgery until training camp, and the Bulls decided to limit his workload from the jump. How long could it take for him to feel right?

Monday night may have given us our answer. It may have been just one game, but there is no question that LaVine looked the most in his element in the team’s 111-97 win over the Toronto Raptors. He put together his first 30-point scoring effort of the season on a much-more-familiar 11-20 shooting display. We watched him drain four of his eight 3-point attempts and feast on a mix of cuts, catch-and-shoot looks, and hard drives to the rim.

It was classic Zachary.

The most encouraging part of his performance was that he stayed in attack mode. LaVine’s 9 shots at the rim marked a season-high. He drove baseline for the slam, finished over the lengthy Scottie Barnes, and nailed the reverse layup while drawing the foul. For the first time this season, LaVine looked like the player this organization invested in for a full 48 minutes. One can only hope it’s a sign of what’s to come.

Now, to be clear, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that DeMar DeRozan was getting double-teamed on a handful of possessions. This allowed LaVine to attack closeouts and more easily find open lanes. But still … it was encouraging to see LaVine take full advantage of the situation in the way that we know he can.

I should probably also note that – as much as I want to see the athletic LaVine continue to kill teams downhill – we probably should expect at least some change in how LaVine approaches things on offense this season. At the end of the day, we are talking about a player who has undergone two knee surgeries and signed a contract to be the face of a franchise. Self-preservation is important, and every player has to tweak their game as they get older.

Imagine we’re talking about a running quarterback. We all know the more you run, the more you risk injury. The Bulls don’t necessarily want LaVine to try dunking everything. He’s gifted enough that he can likely be as effective without putting that much strain on his body. LaVine actually spoke to this point last week, even using the GOAT as a point of reference.

“MJ was better when he came back off baseball but he didn’t dunk as much,” LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson. “Maybe I don’t need the wear and tear. It’s about longevity too.”

He’s right. The Bulls need him to stay healthy. And if that means a few less aggressive drives to the rim, then so be it.

What that shouldn’t mean, however, is that LaVine can’t play to his strengths. Shooting off screens, attacking downhill, and creating high-percentage shots are all things he does so well. And it was a breath of fresh air to see him finally do that again on Monday night.

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Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.