By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — From the time Zach LaVine arrived in Chicago as the centerpiece of the Bulls’ trade with the Timberwolves in June, he has embraced all that comes with being a potential face of the franchise. The well-liked LaVine has showcased a quality work ethic, easygoing personality and taken accountability amid some early performance struggles in his return from ACL rehab.
In the past week, LaVine has also taken strides in another area that’s a hallmark trait of cornerstone players: shining in closing time.
Three nights after lifting the Bulls to a win over the aforementioned Timberwolves with three game-winning free throws in a furious finish, LaVine had a steal and runout game-winning dunk with 12.4 seconds left to lift Chicago to a 105-101 victory over Orlando at the United Center on Monday evening. He sealed the game 10 seconds later with a pair of free throws after Mario Hezonja airballed a deep 3-pointer from the left wing.
“I embrace it,” LaVine said of being the Bulls’ closer of late. “You have to get it done. Everybody wants to have the ball in their hands at the end of the game. You have to have the confidence and ability to do it, and I think I do.”
Breaking a 101-101 tie off a Magic inbounds play, the dunk marked the final two of 18 points of LaVine’s night, on which included seven points and three assists in the fourth quarter. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg called it a “great read,” while LaVine’s initial goal was simply to force a difficult pass going away from the hoop.
Then Jonathon Simmons’ pass went beyond Shelvin Mack’s outstretched arms and into no man’s land.
“We knew they were going to try to just get it in,” LaVine said. “You know, I pushed up on him. I just tried to make it tough. Justin (Holiday) made a good play to like shade the ball to (my) right, and I bumped into Shelvin Mack, made the dude pass it, obviously, to the left. I came in and made an aggressive play on the ball.”
Added Magic coach Frank Vogel: “It just wasn’t a good inbounds pass, and you’ve got to be able to execute something as simple as that.”
LaVine’s big play helped save the Bulls (20-36) from an epic collapse. Leading 93-75 with 8:23 left, the Bulls followed with a stretch of abysmal basketball as the Magic (18-38) reeled off a 23-3 run to take the lead. The Bulls survived a final eight-minute stretch in which they shot 4-of-11 and committed five turnovers.
Bobby Portis (19 points, seven rebounds) was a big reason why, as his short floater tied it at 98-all before his 3-pointer knotted it at 101-all.
The Magic went scoreless on their final seven possessions. LaVine’s dunk was the backbreaker and one he’ll never forget, as the 22-year-old couldn’t recall ever having a breakaway dunk in the final seconds to win a game at any level of basketball.
Now, he hopes rising to the moment becomes a habit.
“You got to be sharper,” LaVine said of performing in crunch time. “You got to understand, you know, there’s probably not going to be a lot of fouls called. You got to be aggressive.
“You got to make a play, some way, some form, if it’s a shot or it’s a defensive effort, a rebound, a steal. You got to make a play. We did that tonight.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.