The Chicago Bulls needed a game like this from Zach LaVine.
“Just getting to the cup, being aggressive,” LaVine told the NBC Sports Chicago broadcast crew after the Bulls’ win over the Portland Trail Blazers on March 24. “I think once I was able to set the tone, everyone could follow that and it’s a lot easier. Then I can get my passing involved if they start helping, and it just went from there. I was happy to get downhill, get everything started.”
That’s everything the Bulls should want to hear from the $215 million franchise cornerstone in his early prime years amid a trying campaign. LaVine acknowledged the need for him to be the example, scoring efficiently to draw the opponent’s attention, especially with DeMar DeRozan sidelined due to a recurring hip injury.
LaVine led all scorers with 33 points and tied his season high with eight assists adding four rebounds and one block for good measure.
It is key that LaVine was cognizant of the need for him to function as a playmaker for a team trying to manufacture one, now, from a combination of veteran Patrick Beverley and resurgent former lottery pick Coby White, the latter of whom got a postgame shoutout.
“[Nikola Vucevic] did a great job,” LaVine beegan. “Pat, [Alex Caruso], everybody – Coby had a big game – so it was huge.”
It is unclear whether LaVine was referring to Beverley or Patrick Williams. Williams had the better individual stat line (10 points, three rebounds, three blocks) making him the likely subject of LaVine’s comment but Beverley finished with the better plus-minus so either one would be a suitable answer in the end.
Zach LaVine, Bulls Finding Themselves Down the Stretch
Chicago started a three-game road excursion on the West Coast with a 124-96 romp over the extremely short-handed Blazers who were missing several key starters including Damian Lillard.
But the Bulls took care of business, avoiding the pitfalls of looking ahead on the schedule with a pair of tough matchups against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers both on the docket with the Lakers also visiting the Bulls at the United Center on March 29.
“Just come in with the right mindset,” LaVine said of the Bulls’ approach to the Blazers missing so many players. “Obviously, they ain’t have all their big-time star-power guys. But at the end of the day, man, those guys are going to go out there and play hard. You saw at the end of the first quarter, [Shaedon] Sharpe was out there playing extremely hard and they can put some numbers on the board. So, we played to our identity, we settled down, and we got the win.”
The Bulls have won four of the last five games, boasting a 9-5 record since the All-Star break.
That is tied for the third-best mark in the Eastern Conference in that span and, more importantly, there is evidence that it is sustainable.
The Bulls ranked 24th in offensive rating before the break, per NBA .com, and have been the 13th-best unit since. Their defense rating, which ranked seventh in the NBA prior to the All-Star festivities, has been the second-best mark in the league behind only the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
LaVine’s defensive rating is a highly-respectable 108 since the All-Star break. That is the best mark of any player to see at least 35 minutes and appear in at least 14 games as he has; a group consisting of 10 other players.
“It is what it is,” LaVine said of doubts about his defense. “People talk either way. I tell them stop talking about me but at the end of the day, I don’t care. I know at the end of the day, look, you see me at the end of games, I’m guarding who I’m supposed to be guarding. And I’m going to do my thing, man. I’m not going to be perfect every night. But I’m going to give the best effort I can.”
LaVine has been outspoken about his on-ball prowess defensively and the numbers back him up – he is holding opponents 2.3% below their season shooting averages when he guards them.
Could Damian Lillard be in Bulls’ Future?
Lillard’s absence is notable for multiple reasons the most direct of which being that his absence increases the chances that Portland loses a game and misses the playoffs which would keep them from handing over the first-round pick owed to the Bulls from the trade that sent Lauri Markkanen to the Cleveland Cavaliers and brought Derrick Jones Jr. to Chicago.
The Blazers star has admitted that he could be shut down for the remainder of the season. But he has also admitted that he does not have much interest in going through another rebuild as Portland’s attempt to retool on the fly has fallen flat.
“There seems almost no chance Portland will make the playoffs,” notes Sam Smith of NBA.com. “Maybe the biggest question for them is…what will they decide to do with Damian Lillard? But at 33 years old this summer, starting to miss games with injuries and owed a $63 million season four years from now, how much of a market does Lillard really have anymore?
“Does someone like Lillard make you a championship contender?
With Lonzo Ball’s future anything but certain, perhaps the Bulls try to figure something out to fill their need for a point guard, though they would have to get creative with their limited assets amid what would surely be a slew of trade offers.
The best the Bulls might be able to do is something involving Ball, Vucevic, and White – the latter two on new deals, and possibly to other teams – while adding their 2028 and 2030 draft picks with a swap option for 2029 selling Portland on their potential to be bad by then with Lillard and DeRozan, who are friends, in their mid-30s.
Chicago could also return the rights to the first-round pick that Portland owes them giving the latter back control of their future.