Heading into Tuesday night’s matchup against an elite Eastern Conference team in the Brooklyn Nets, the Chicago Bulls looked to be in great shape. They had a three-game winning streak, and Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević had been providing a dominant two-man game that could turn Chicago into a legitimate threat.
But the Bulls looked more like last season’s team Tuesday: one that relied heavily on LaVine with no one to help him out.
At halftime, the Bulls were down 64-51, and LaVine was the lone Bull to have scored in double figures. The All-Star guard finished with a game-high 41 points, but it wasn’t enough — even with a late push from Chicago.
It was that lack of help that ultimately caused the Bulls to fall to the Nets, 115-107, and the loss created an even slimmer chance for the Bulls to make the play-in tournament.
(That’s better than I’d have guessed!)
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) May 12, 2021
The mathematical odds aren’t on Chicago’s side, but its play-in contention chances remain alive — for now — with the Washington Wizards’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night.
The Bulls sit at No. 11 in the East with a 29-40 record. For them to make the play-in tournament, the Bulls not only have to win their remaining three games, but the Wizards also need to lose their remaining two games. So getting to the tournament will be difficult, and Zach LaVine knows it’s on him and his team.
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Owning Up to Poor Play
Following Chicago’s latest loss, LaVine acknowledged the struggles and errors that may end up playing a role in the Bulls missing the playoffs for a fourth-straight season.
“We put ourselves in this boat,” LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago and other reporters during a postgame press conference. “Obviously, I’m riding along in it. So it’s upsetting and you gotta be accountable. It sucks, though. Obviously, I want to be in the playoffs and be on that stage. Obviously, we’re just not there yet.”
He also noted how the Bulls “didn’t do enough throughout the season,” having lost several winnable games that have contributed to the position they are in now.
Throughout the course of the season, the Bulls’ play regressing in the second half had become a trend, especially when carrying a lead into halftime. The team would often collapse in the fourth quarter, proving their inability to close out games. As a result, the Bulls have given up numerous games they should have won.
It hasn’t been much of a problem as of late. But the accumulation of such losses has only made Chicago’s push for the playoffs all the more difficult. Instead, many of the Bulls’ recent losses during LaVine’s COVID-induced absence were a result of poor starts and an inability to produce enough offense.
LaVine Determined to Make Playoffs
If Chicago fails to make the play-in tournament, it will also mark yet another year in which LaVine fails to play in the postseason.
Since entering the league in 2014, LaVine has yet to play on a winning team and during the postseason. But he remains dedicated to getting there.
“I’ve been making strides each and every year,” LaVine mentioned to reporters. “I’m going to continue to do that. But it’s not about me. I would love to have just the opportunity to go out there and play and compete and showcase what I can do on a bigger stage. I’m going to get there. But we just have to work for it.”
With the potential the Bulls have been showing, working toward the playoffs next season might be easier.
Bulls Showing Off Potential
While the Bulls’ latest game wasn’t good beyond LaVine’s individual play, the team has shown reason to be optimistic moving forward.
LaVine and Vučević have played alongside each other for only 14 games, and they have already made the Bulls more of a force to be reckoned with. Despite the small sample size, Vučević already knows firsthand that LaVine “makes the game so much easier for everyone.”
“His ability to just score in many different ways helps our team in many ways,” Vučević said in a press conference. “Obviously the scoring, but also then teams are gonna have to focus on him and help on him and it’s gonna open up stuff for us.”
Likewise, LaVine has raved about playing alongside the two-time All-Star.
“We’re two guys who know how to play the game, and we play pretty good off each other already,” LaVine told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It will just keep getting better with time. And going forward, they’re going to need both of us.”
At the least, the Bulls will need them both. But their recent play could also be a sign that they can create opportunities for Coby White to thrive. LaVine, Vučević and White’s combined scoring averages for Chicago’s last trio of victories is 68.0 points.
“They’re two All-Stars, but they’re super unselfish and they always just make the right play,” White said to NBC Sports Chicago and other media outlets. “Both of them attract a lot of attention on the court, so for me I just try to pick my spots and try to get windows where they can find me for shots or just for driving lanes. They attract so much attention that it opens up the floor a lot and it opens up the paint.”
LaVine and White previously showed promise for becoming a dynamic duo, but they haven’t been able to provide such play in tandem on a consistent basis. With Vučević in the mix, however, the Bulls may have the potential to develop them as a “Big Three” given time.
That trio — in addition to Patrick Williams — has even caught the attention of Kevin Durant. So while the Bulls aren’t on track for success right now, their direction looks solid.
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