Zach LaVine Had the Best Game of His Career on Wednesday Night
I don’t want the rapid pace of the NBA Play-In Tournament to let it go unnoticed: Zach LaVine had the best game of his career on Wednesday night.
I’m not going to lie to you, I haven’t had the time to go back and break it down extensively with the Miami game set for tonight. But I don’t need to. Sitting there and watching that performance live gave me a feeling I had never experienced before with LaVine. And it’s the kind of feeling that only true max-level talents tend to offer.
Indeed, near the end of the 3rd quarter with the Bulls down 77-64, LaVine came off the Coby White screen to accept the feed from Alex Caruso. With Jakob Poeltl clogging the lane and Fred VanVleet going over the top of the screen to stick with him, LaVine dipped the ball before elevating for the mid-range jumper. He knocked it down. Backtracked. And clapped his hands. The Bulls were now within 11 points.
The NBA’s biggest stars are all capable of giving us that “oh sh*t, here they come” moment. In other words, they get into the kind of zone that allows them to practically single-handedly win the game. While LaVine has had impressive stretches over his career, I’m not quite sure he ever gave me that specific feeling.
But when he hit that mid-range jumper, there it was.
LaVine proceeded to knock down a 28-footer and fly right past the Raptors’ first line of defense for an and-one. He ended the 3rd quarter with 11 straight points and 17 of the team’s 25 points. The Bulls were within single digits and striking distance after once being down 19 points.
“Be aggressive and get it close before the 4th quarter,” LaVine said of his mentality. “Rotation wise, he was going to come in early 4th, so just try to get it close. We weren’t doing terrible on defense we just weren’t getting good breaks. But, offensively, we were slow, we weren’t getting downhill. Just wanted to be aggressive, attacking. Obviously, just get going. Once that happened, I think the rhythm for the whole team got going.”
He played the entire 4th quarter and added 13 more points to the board. When all was said and done, he scored 30 of his 39 points over the final two quarters on 57.1 percent shooting and a 12-13 showing from the free throw line. When we consider that this was on a postseason stage in a do-or-die game, it’s hard not to declare this the most meaningful performance the 28-year-old has ever had.
Sure, he hit 13 3-pointers against the Charlotte Hornets. And, yes, he scored 39 points in the first half once against the Atlanta Hawks. We also saw him shoot 14-19 from the field against Philly earlier this year to lead the Bulls to a 126-112 victory. Cool. None of those games mattered as much as the one the Bulls played on Wednesday night.
And, to be clear, it wasn’t just about the stakes. It was the fact that LaVine took matters into his own hands and willed his team into a position to pull off the comeback. He put his head down and used his wicked athleticism to bulldoze the Raptors’ defense on repeat. LaVine shot all but two of his 15 free throws in the second half.
“There are not many people in this league that have the talent that he has. It feels good just to be able to see him get appreciated,” DeMar DeRozan said in the postgame press conference. “From the moment that I got here, I want everything to come his way in a positive nature because I know how hard he works, how much he cares about the game.”
Not only earlier this season but throughout basically his whole career, late-game decision-making hasn’t been his forte. Whether it be settling for pull-jumpers or turning the ball over in key spots, it often felt like LaVine was missing the clutch execution that came with being a true star. This is why DeMar DeRozan quickly took over the role of certified closer last season. LaVine may have been dealing with a knee issue, but he also simply wasn’t the best choice down the stretch.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we officially look at that Raptors win as the night that changed for good. A killer instinct seemed to radiate from LaVine’s pores, which is something that we’ve seen building since the All-Star break officially came to a close.
Whether it ends on Friday night or later, there is no denying the Bulls’ season as a whole has been a disappointment. But if there is anything positive to take away as we look ahead, it’s that LaVine continues to trend in the right direction. The Bulls invested in him with the hope that brighter days were on the horizon. A game like the one against the Raptors makes it feel like they are.