Bulls close 2022 with a loss but hope Zach LaVine is getting right

It didn’t show up against Cleveland on Saturday, but LaVine’s offense through December was a good sign of possible things to come. Now his defense? That’s where questions remain going into 2023.

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Bulls guard Zach LaVine drives to the basket against Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen during Saturday’s game.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine drives to the basket against Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen during Saturday’s game.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Zach LaVine is proud of his December résumé.

Just ask him.

“I’ve been for a while,’’ LaVine said almost defiantly when asked about his recent improved play. “Go look at my last 10, 15 games. I’ve been saying that. I’ve been feeling good.’’

The two-time All-Star made a solid point. After all, he came into the game against the Cavaliers on Saturday fresh off a season-high 43 points against the Pistons and was averaging 25.2 points on 53% shooting from the field in December.

Throw in his 43.2% shooting from three-point range, and it was definitely an offensive display worthy of a max-contract player.

Two quibbles with his assessment: There was still one more game to play in December, and LaVine seemed to overlook the defensive side of the game.

LaVine and the Bulls watched the short-handed Cavaliers end their two-game winning streak with a 103-102 victory at the United Center. It was Cleveland’s second win against the Bulls (16-20) this season.

LaVine had 15 points, shooting 6-for-16 from the field, on a night in which both teams had to grind through it.

Despite their struggles, the Bulls still gave themselves a chance to pull it out late.

Guard Alex Caruso had a chance to close the deficit to three with 1:21 left, but split two free throws. Caruso made up for it on the other end, tipping a loose ball ahead to Ayo Dosunmu, who was fouled at the basket.

Dosunmu also split the pair but gave the Bulls life. Another turnover by the Cavs, and DeMar DeRozan cashed in, making a layup with 29.8 seconds left to close the deficit to one.

Out of the timeout, Caris LeVert missed a short jumper for the Cavs (23-14), giving the Bulls one last chance with 5.8 seconds left.

It was DeRozan time, but he got pushed to the baseline on a double-team, and his 15-footer off one leg missed.

“I kind of broke it off,’’ DeRozan said of the play. “Seen an angle for the gap, felt like it was a good look. But we gave ourselves a chance, fought hard. The last couple of minutes, we busted our butts defensively. They go in, different story, but I’m proud of our guys. We fought and stayed with it.’’

They’ve done that a lot lately, going 5-2 to close out the month.

But there’s also that elephant in the room: LaVine’s defense.

He began last season playing the best defense of his career (103.4 defensive rating). But once his left knee started acting up, he finished the season with a career-worst 116.1 rating.

As well as LaVine has been playing recently, his defensive rating was at 115.8.

So while the offense has definitely been improving, especially considering LaVine was coming off an offseason cleanup on the knee, the defense was still an issue.

“I do think he’s gotten better in some of those situations,’’ coach Billy Donovan said. “I do think there’s room for not only him, but for our team to continue to progress and get better. I think our defensive numbers have gone the other way, quite honestly. I don’t think it’s all on Zach or any one player.

“It’s hard to be a good team without that kind of physicality, and there’s no way of escaping it. There’s going to be physical confrontation on every single possession, and you’ve got to lean into that stuff.’’

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