Playing a great team on the second night of a back-to-back is never easy. But with Zach LaVine playing his first game of the season in the Bulls home opener, you’d think they would get up for this one. Right?
Nope. The Bulls got embarrassed on their home court, losing to the Cavaliers 128-96.
The Bulls are being exposed. While LaVine played well, his knee remains a concern. The bench unit has cost them two games. Patrick Williams has been miserable.
LaVine’s injury management
Billy Donovan spoke pre-game about LaVine’s knee injury management situation, and we are still left with questions.
LaVine was cleared to play for the preseason and mentioned several times to the media that he was in good health. So if the Bulls were going to manage his injury, why would they keep it a secret until he showed up as probable on the injury report the day before the Bulls opened the season against the Miami Heat? If this was a load management, or preventative, situation, he might sit back-to-backs, but not the season opener!
Donovan cleared things up in his pregame media availability when he answered whether this was planned.
Was it always the intention for LaVine to not play in the season opener?
“Coming out of the surgery, everything was successful,” he said. “No issues, no hang ups. Obviously he was cleared for the very first day of training camp.”
To me, this gets at the question of whether LaVine’s injury management is reactive or preventative. It’s not one or the other — the answer is both.
Despite conflicting sentiments from LaVine and Donovan over the road trip, Donovan reiterated that LaVine did, in fact, experience discomfort after several hard days of training camp practice.
“He had some discomfort, some soreness,” Donovan said. “And doctors, medical staff, Zach, they talk and you start to figure out a plan going forward.”
So the Bulls are responding to pain LaVine is experiencing and that pain is new. Now they will have to manage that in the coming weeks and months.
First look at LaVine
When LaVine finally did take the court, he looked good. He was the only Bull (this side of Javonte Green) that looked good.
And from what little he divulged after the game, he felt good too.
“It felt great,” LaVine said.
Not that inspiring, but LaVine did finish with 23 points on nine-of-16 shooting. He had some really impressive moments that have to ease some of the concern about his health.
His first two possessions featured an explosive move to the basket that led to a Nikola Vucevic dunk, followed by a step back three.
We’ll continue to monitor LaVine’s knee, but he looked springy and aggressive in his first game.
“I don’t know,” LaVine said when asked about the possibility of playing back-to-back games. “Obviously, you guys know me. I like playing all the time. But gotta think big picture and what’s most important. We’ll figure that out as it goes along.”
LaVine said he expects to play Monday against the Boston Celtics. We shall see.
End of the bench mob?
The five-man bench unit that had performed so well in preseason is now actively hurting the Bulls.
“I was disappointed because that’s not been the group that’s been in training camp,” Donovan said. “The one thing that happened to that group in my opinion that had been uncharacteristic is the ball stopped moving, we didn’t help each other.”
The Bulls were down 27-23 when the Bulls big three left the game in the first quarter with 1:30 remaining. From there, the Bulls bench allowed the Cavs to build their lead up to 51-34 before DeMar DeRozan finally re-entered the game with 8:17 to go in the 2nd quarter.
“We’re not going to be perfect. But with our unit, we have to either keep the win and help our team get ahead, or sustain where we’re at,” Drummond said. “We can’t come in there and have lapses.”
Single-game plus-minus is not a super meaningful stat, but in their first half minutes, Coby White and Alex Caruso were -15, while Green, Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond were -13. In just over five and a half minutes, the bench unit lost the Bulls this game.
So while these units have the ability to play with speed, but they really struggle when they aren’t able to play the way they want to. The Bulls generated five steals in the first half, and did not score a single point in transition. When they can’t get stops or get out an run, they have to play in the half court. That’s when the lack of a primary offensive creator kills them. In their 34 possessions this year, the group has a -8.5 net rating.
In the second half, Donovan staggered LaVine and DeRozan, playing one of the two with the rest of the bench group. The game was out of hand at that point, but it’s a look we might see more of moving forward.
“It takes a little bit of pressure off of us because these guys are able to create their own shot and we can feed off of them,” Drummond said of playing with one of the two Bulls All-Stars.
Javonte is amazing
After critiquing the second unit, I want to make sure to give Green his flowers. He is much better elevating good talent around him, as evidenced by his amazing third quarter performance. But he should not be relied upon as a primary source of offense.
Just going to drop these highlights here:
This is truly one of the best putback dunks I have ever seen.
And then this LeBron-esque chase down block. This man is outrageous.
Thank god for how well Green played and how much he impacts the game, because the rest of the power forward group on this team is really struggling.
Patrick Williams miserable stretch continues
I don’t want to beat a dead horse. Patrick Williams has been really bad. Two points on one-of-four shooting during the 11 meaningful minutes he played. He was effectively benched, being removed from the starting unit for the majority of the third quarter. Total speculation, but I would be surprised if he was not moved to the bench ahead of Monday’s game against the Celtics.