By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — In time, it may be remembered as the night Chicago first fell in love with Zach LaVine.
On an emotional, storyline-filled Friday that featured the Bulls’ past and present colliding and the return of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson to the United Center for the first time since they left the organization in trades, it was LaVine who shined the brightest. He scored 15 of his 35 points in the final quarter and outdueled Butler, who was sensational himself with 38 points, down the stretch as the Bulls rallied for a 114-113 win in front of a frenzied crowd.
Included in LaVine’s heroics were his team’s final 11 points and three game-winning free throws with 18.4 seconds left after Butler fouled him on the right wing. About 22 seconds earlier, Butler had hit a the go-ahead driving layup.
“It was big,” LaVine said. “He’s an incredible big-time player, and I took the challenge. The team had the challenge as well.
“I think everybody on both sides was ready for this game for a long time.”
The Bulls trailed by as many as 17 points early in the second half and were down five with 1:20 left. LaVine followed with a dunk and then a 3-pointer to tie it.
With the Bulls down 113-111 shortly after, coach Fred Hoiberg had no hesitation in calling a curl play for LaVine and then letting his instincts take over. He then calmly sank all three free throws.
“(Felt) great,” LaVine said of the confidence the Bulls had to go to him late. “They put the ball in my hands, trust me to make the right plays. We did it. We finally stuck together and fought and limited our mistakes in the fourth quarter. We really locked down.”
When it was all over, former Bulls and current Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau could only express his displeasure, his answers short in a postgame media session that lasted 1 minute, 22 seconds. True to form, he called the surrounding emotions “not a big deal” and grumbled that his Wolves “aren’t good enough to think the game is over five minutes into the third quarter.”
Butler had a lighter demeanor despite the loss. He admitted he clearly fouled LaVine on the deciding play. He expressed no regret in giving up the ball on the final possession to teammate Karl -Anthony Towns, who missed a 3-pointer from the left wing. The Wolves rebounded the miss, but Butler’s buzzer-beating corner jumper missed the mark.
Butler also thanked the Bulls organization and fans, displaying an appreciation for a nearly three-minute video tribute for him and Gibson that was played during a first-quarter timeout. Butler spent his first six NBA season in Chicago and Gibson his first 7 1/2.
“Everybody knows I have a lot of love for organization, this city, this fan base,” Butler said.
“It’s great to see the fan base come out and watch me and Taj play and compete … This is where it all started. They remember us for that. We love them right back for it.”
A night that brought emotions and closure reminded that there are now new players for Bulls fans to love, starting with the centerpiece of the Butler trade. LaVine’s 35 points were the most of his brief Bulls tenure that got a late start as he rehabbed after ACL surgery, and he’s now scored at least 20 points in four straight games, matching a career-best streak.
“For Zach to go out and have that type of game where he was the go-to guy the entire fourth quarter, the seven or eight minutes he was in there, that’s huge for him,” Hoiberg said. “That’s big for his confidence.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.