It could have been a different story.
Lauri Markkanen comes back to the United Center and scores 28 points, including eight dunks, one so vicious it nearly decapitated Nikola Vucevic.
But no. Behind another elite shooting effort from Zach LaVine, the Bulls were able to put the Jazz down 126-118 and move to 19-21 on the season.
It wasn’t just the win, it was how it happened. The stars finally shined together. For the first time this season, LaVine (36 points) and DeMar DeRozan (35 points) each scored 35 or more.
And for the second-straight game, LaVine erupted from deep. He shot 6-for-12 from three and is now 17-of-25 over the last two games.
LaVine is on an absolute heater right now, but he’s also reading the game at a higher level. His shooting is opening up other scoring avenues, creating more space for DeRozan and others, and keeping defenses at a loss for how to cover him.
“Inside the offense, recognizing the opportunities to do that,” Billy Donovan said. “He’s such a great shooter and it opens up a lot of things.”
Last in the league by over an attempt-and-a-half per game, the Bulls are, and will continue to be, a low-volume three-point shooting team. And the burden is on LaVine to raise the floor in that department.
“He’s coming off a screening action and they’re switching, and they’re so worried about his speed coming downhill, that they’re waiting for him below the three-point line,” Donovan explained. “And when he recognizes those and rises up and shoots them, what happens is, after a couple times he makes those, it’s just straight line downhill.”
The value of three pointers goes beyond ‘three is more than two.’ The way the three-pointer stretches the defense opens up the middle of the floor, providing space for DeRozan to operate, new driving lanes that cause the defense to continue to shift and tilt and generally providing more of an advantage to the offense.
“It’s everything. It’s everything for me,” DeRozan said. “I don’t need too much room. So when Zach has it going, it’s just pick of the litter from there. It makes it easy for all of us.”
An element of that, and another one where the Bulls simply don’t do enough, is shooting off screens or movement in general.
When it comes to shooting data, the NBA tracks nearest defender and categorizes them into four groups: very tight (0-2 feet), tight (2-4 feet), open (4-6 feet) and wide open (more than six feet).
Coming into the game, Ayo Dosunmu had taken zero three-pointers with the nearest defender closer than four feet. Patrick Williams had taken zero three-pointers with the nearest defender closer than four feet. Nikola Vucevic had taken one three-pointers with the nearest defender closer than four feet.
This entire season!
Aside from that being completely unbelievable, it speaks to the way Bulls opponents are guarding them. It means the defense simply doesn’t care about sixty percent of the starting lineup. They don’t close out hard, which means the defense never has to go into scramble mode, which means the Bulls are never getting easy driving lanes to the basket.
That makes it so easy to defend the Bulls. Just load up the lane and wait for DeRozan or LaVine to take a tough jumper outside the paint.
Given the state of the roster, the Bulls don’t really have any way to circumvent the issue. Coby White is a good shooter, and while his defense has been much better of late, he isn’t a trustworthy enough option to play critical minutes. Lonzo Ball would be the perfect solution, but who knows when he will play next. That means much of that burden falls onto LaVine, who is one of the best shooters in the entire NBA (see: January 6th, 2023).
“To me, 10 to 15 every night,” Donovan said when asked how many three-pointers LaVine should be taking per game. “I would love that.”
Though he likely wants to create more offense for himself off-the-dribble , and justifiably so, defenses treat him differently. Because he is such a dangerous threat, it forces defenders to chase him, stay attached to him and do what they can to prevent him from getting the ball in these types of situations.
Just look at the opening play Billy Donovan drew up to open the second half. Zach LaVine comes off a simple screening action to get himself an open three.
Often times, the man defender the screener, in this case Lauri Markkanen, will have to help off his own man to take the pass to LaVine away. That opens up cutting lanes for the screener.
In this case, Markkanen stays home and it results in an open three.
Running off screens all day is exhausting. But the Bulls need to incorporate more of these actions into their offense.
They’re too dynamic not to.
“It’s scary when he gets that rhythm going like that,” DeRozan said. “As long as Billy’s telling him to do that and not me, we’re good.”
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