It’s a nice problem for Bulls coach Billy Donovan to have.
Forward DeMar DeRozan and guard Zach LaVine each considers himself a closer in late-game situations, which isn’t an easy designation to earn. It’s an alpha mentality, especially for the elite few who are good at it.
But the Bulls have two alphas. That makes them hard for opposing defenses to guard, but it also creates a fine line for DeRozan and LaVine to navigate. Do they lean on experience late in close games? Is it dictated by matchups? Or is it simply the hot hand who carries the day?
It’s likely a mix of all of the above.
Take matchup and opposition out of it: Down a point and 5 seconds left on the clock, who do you trust more? GO:— Joe Cowley (@JCowleyHoops) October 26, 2021
One reason the Bulls acquired DeRozan during the offseason was to give Donovan that option. And it was one Donovan availed himself of as the Raptors were clawing their way back from a 20-point deficit in the second half Monday, only to be thwarted by DeRozan time and time again.
‘‘He’s been our go-to in the closing moments of games, and he hasn’t disappointed yet,’’ guard Lonzo Ball said of DeRozan. ‘‘[On Monday], he put us on his back pretty much and carried the fourth quarter out for us.’’
In that instance, call it Donovan riding the hot hand. DeRozan went 3-for-5 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter; LaVine was 1-for-4 and committed a costly turnover.
‘‘I have 100% trust in [DeRozan],’’ Ball said. ‘‘We know he’s going to make the right play and take us to the promised land.’’
And that’s where the history of the two comes into play. DeRozan has a solid one when it comes to winning, while LaVine is trying to change his.
The Bulls have won four consecutive games to open the season for the first time since 1996-97, and it is the first time LaVine has been part of such a streak in his NBA career. The last meaningful four-game winning streak LaVine had been a part of was in 2014, when his UCLA team beat Stanford in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament, downed Arizona in the final, then beat Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin in the NCAA Tournament before being eliminated by Florida — which was coached by Donovan.
As of Tuesday, LaVine remains the player with the worst winning percentage of any All-Star in NBA history at 31.87%. His hope this season is to pass Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who is second-worst at 33.13%.
(LaVine has been on some very bad teams, however, so he’s as much a victim of circumstance as he is someone to blame for those numbers.)
When analyzing DeRozan and LaVine, both have more strengths than weaknesses in terms of coming through late in close games.
In the last two minutes of games that were four points or closer last season, DeRozan shot 45.8% and LaVine 41.5%. DeRozan also averaged 0.4 assists in such situations to LaVine’s zero, which indicates he was more willing to set up teammates.
In the last 30 seconds of four-point games last season, DeRozan shot 46.7% and LaVine 42.1%. DeRozan was plus-0.3 in plus/minus in those situations with the Spurs, while LaVine was minus-0.2 with the Bulls. One caveat, however, is that the Spurs were a better team.
Through four games as teammates this season, DeRozan is averaging a team-leading 6.3 points in the fourth quarter. He also is shooting 52.9%, including 50% from three-point range, and is plus-1.8 in the quarter. LaVine is averaging 4.8 points, is shooting 38.5% (33% from three-point range) and is minus-2.5 in the fourth.
So should Donovan have more trust in DeRozan than in LaVine at this point? It’s a great problem for him to have.