Zach LaVine knew a few things about the moment in a tie game with 15.2 seconds left, the Orlando Magic with the ball. “You have to make a play some way or some form,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine was saying after the Bulls 105-101 victory. “If it’s a shot or a defensive effort or rebound, steal, something; you have to make a play.”
The games always are about making a play. Who can? Who
wants to? Who will?
This was the scene: The Bulls had lost an 18-point fourth quarter lead. Orlando went ahead 101-98 with 2:41 left on Evan Fornier’s three, the Magic’s fourth in the previous five minutes. Bobby Portis immediately matched that 12 seconds later. And then no one scored, LaVine missing a pullup 20 footer with 17.3 seconds left. Magic ball for presumably a last shot for the win or overtime. Jonathon Simmons was inbounding from the right sideline opposite the Bulls bench. The Magic believed they could get a play for Simmons matched up against Lauri Markkanen. LaVine, who had made the winner in last Friday’s thrilling win over Minnesota, knows closing games even as he hasn’t done so that much in his fourth NBA season.
“Everyone wants to have the ball in their hands at the end of the game,” said LaVine, apparently unaware not everyone actually seeks out that moment. “But you have to have the confidence and ability to do it. I think I do.”
LaVine also knows aggression is rewarded. He knows the officials are going to allow some contact. The strong survive, and all that.
“You have to be sharper,” said LaVine. “You have to understand there probably won’t be a lot of fouls called. You have to be aggressive. Both teams are trying to win the game, especially at the end; so you have to make a big play.”
But it’s not only desire; it’s the execution coaches like to talk about. Also anticipation and intellect. So LaVine also knows on an inbounds play, the ideal is to get the receiver off balance, leaning away from the basket.
“I’m trying to push it out as far as possible so it’s harder for them to get into their play, closer to half court,” explained LaVine. “I bumped him early. Then as he got closer to the three-point line, shaded to the right and I think he made it harder of a pass and I just jumped the lane.”
And distract the passer. That was Justin Holiday’s assignment. Instead of jumping around like players often to, Holiday was collaborating with LaVine, shaded to his left to force the pass out toward halfcourt. So Holiday stretched his long arms width wise, luring Simmons to put the ball out ahead of receiver Shelvin Mack. “Justin made a good play, shaded the ball,” said LaVine.
Anticipating that, LaVine first began bumping Mack as he moved to get the ball and then with that quick first step bounded out ahead of Mack over Mack’s right shoulder. “I pushed up on him,” said LaVine. “The main thing I was trying to do was get him up the floor a little and make it tough. I bumped into Mack, (Holiday) made the dude pass it, obviously, to the left; came in and made an aggressive play on the ball.” With Mack having to reach for the ball, LaVine knew he was quicker.
LaVine also knew something else.
“I don’t know if a lot of people were catching me when I got it,” said LaVine, who streaked in for the slam dunk and 103-101 Bulls lead with 12.4 seconds left. “I was going down there to get a couple of points.”
The Magic got a Mario Henonja airballed three from Nikola Mirotic distance and then LaVine added a pair of free throws for the Bulls victory.
“We were up by 18; I thought my night was done,” said LaVine. “They came back. We have to stop giving up leads, but we still got the win at the end of the day, so we can’t get mad about that. You’ve got to embrace those opportunities (at the end of the game). I was upset I missed that pullup. I thought that was in. But I was able to get it back and got the free throws; big time.”
The Bulls may just have a big time guy there; or three.
It was hardly the highlight game of the night in the NBA with the Bulls moving to 20-38 and the Magic falling to 18-38. Lauri Markkanen led the Bulls with 21 points and added eight rebounds. Portis had 19 points and LaVine 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Jerian Grant with Kris Dunn still out following his Jan. 17 concussion had 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Denzel Valentine had 11 points and his first dunk as an NBA player and Holiday had eight points and a team high nine rebounds. Hezonja had 24 points for Orlando and Fornier 22.
There will be debate around the Bulls for the rest of the season about the worthiness of winning with so much attention to draft picks and draft lottery odds with losses. That, however, cannot be the focus of the players or coaches. Their job is to win games.
There will come a time after the All-Star break, the team already has promised, when more young players who have’t played much this season, like Cristiano Felicio, Cameron Payne and newly acquired Noah Vonleh will play regularly. Perhaps that will not always produce the team’s best lineups. But as long as LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn play, which it seems they will, the Bulls should be competitive.
And, after all, if the Bulls cannot be competitive with those players on the floor, then there would be issues with those players. There appear to be many fewer than expected with LaVine in just his 13th game back after missing 11 months following serious knee surgery making winners and stand out closing plays in two of the last three games.
“He made a great read on the play, shooting the gap and getting the steal,” agreed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Obviously, we needed it.”
The Bulls also needed to see more of the old from the young Markkanen after he’d missed three games for personal reasons and seemed out of the offense the last few games. Hoiberg made an emphasis to feature Markkanen inside. The seven footer responded with a series of scores on mismatches and strong, driving finishes even as he missed all six of his three-point attempts.
“We wanted to try to get Lauri on the block early in the game,” said Hoiberg. “He had some wide open looks. He makes a couple of those that he’s normally going to knock down, Lauri’s looking at a 30-point game. He just missed a few, but he was great on the block.”
After a dreary opening for both teams, the Magic made seven straight shots and Grant carried the Bulls early with nine points and four assists in the first quarter, having a direct hand in more than half the points in a 30-27 first quarter Bulls lead. Sounds like Grant may be hearing Cameron Payne footsteps. The Bulls got Markkanen inside in the second quarter with Portis’ much improved shooting opening the court again.
“Coach always says the open shot is the best shot for us,” said Portis. “If we keep passing, we might not get as good a shot.” Bobby knows shooting these days.
The Bulls led 53-51 at halftime and then LaVine and Holiday made threes early in the second quarter, Holiday with a move and step back that had Fornier circling like he was on a Paris traffic circle. But the Bulls, as they often do, went dry, seven straight misses and a pair of turnovers. The Bulls led 77-71 going into the fourth quarter and then began celebrating.
It came with a nimble beginning to the quarter, Portis and LaVine threes, and then the big moment they’d all been joking about in practice all season. When was Denzel going to dunk one?
“I dunk in warmups, I dunk in practice,” the 6-6 Valentine noted with a smile. “I just never did it in a game before; never presented itself. I had been thinking about it, especially because of getting back healthy. My ankle’s feeling better. I’ve been thinking about dunking in a game.”
It came with the Bulls taking the game, it seemed, an 89-75 lead with 9:27 left on a Portis putback. Mack drove in from the left side for a floater that floated only near the basket. Valentine grabbed it and began dribbling out of the backcourt. He kept running the middle in what is becoming an improved Bulls fast break with the wings spread out. Valentine passed to LaVine on the right wing near the sideline and kept going.
LaVine found Valentine still sprinting with a bounce pass into the lane. Valentine went up one handed; slam!
“Once I get my first one, then I’ll start dunking more,” Valentine said with a laugh. “More to come, for sure.”
Valentine bent low after the dunk, his arms stretched wide like the famous Spruce Goose wide winged aircraft as he gliding back to the bench. Portis and David Nwaba eagerly greeted him as Orlando called time. The festive Bulls would get a pair of Valentine free throws after that for the 93-75 lead with 8:23 left.
“It was good to see him so ecstatic,” said Portis. “He always does those dunks in practice; he said he’s going to dunk on someone. We came back to the bench laughing and happy and thinking the game was over. But in the NBA you have to keep playing.”
“I take some of the blame,” said Valentine.
The Magic began taking aim and making several while the Bulls aim wasn’t so good with four turnovers, some misses and, what the heck happened; they’re leading?
It was Portis who matched the Magic lead both times when they went ahead 98-96 and 101-98 as he made a floater and that three. Not something he’s done much.
“I don’t think I was ever in that position to help close the game out,” Portis offered.
Oh right, that.
Then there were a combined six misses and two turnovers between the teams until that inbounds play with 15.2 seconds left. Yes, there’s a reason the teams were a combined 37-73 entering the game. And then Orlando had one more turnover, which was just enough to make the difference this time.
“It’s usually been a layup, or free throws or a jump shot,” LaVine said about end of game plays he’s had. “Add a dunk to it, I guess. You have to get it done.”
Zach LaVine is becoming a guy who finds a way.