A ticked-off Zach LaVine knows Bulls are walking fine line
LaVine knows he has to play better with 14 regular-season games left, but he also knows further injuring his left knee would all but halt any hopes of a deep playoff run.
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Bulls guard Zach LaVine was ‘‘pissed off.’’
It wasn’t just his first-half performance in the Bulls’ loss Monday to the Kings, the ongoing discomfort in his left knee or his teammates.
No, it was the outside optics of it.
He’s supposed to be one of the faces of a Bulls team that spent weeks atop the Eastern Conference standings, serving notice to the league that the organization was different, that LaVine was different.
As of Tuesday, however, he and the Bulls looked more like pretenders than contenders, with their recent play turning up more and more evidence against them.
That’s why LaVine promised a heart-to-heart in the locker room and some self-reflection of his own.
‘‘We need to have those conversations and get on-point going into this last stretch because it’s not going to get any easier,’’ LaVine said of the 14 regular-season games left. ‘‘We don’t know when and who is going to be there, who is going to be injured and out of the lineup, but we gotta play the right way and have a certain identity. I don’t want to be repetitive. I want to obviously be positive, but we have to learn from [the loss to the Kings]. If not, that’s on us.’’
But LaVine has been around long enough to know — especially given how well forward DeMar DeRozan has played this season — that the blame will fall on him first, especially with the dip in his numbers at both ends of the court since his knee began acting up months ago.
That’s the high-wire act he’s trying to pull off: Keep the knee healthy enough so he can be there for his teammates in the playoffs, but be a force on the court so teams such as the Kings can’t play giant-killers.
‘‘It’s tough,’’ LaVine said of that balance. ‘‘If we knew the answer, it would be so much easier. I wish I could just pick it out of a hat. I think we’re all extremely tough and we’re all trying to do the right thing for each other, selfless. But at a certain point . . . what matters now is going out and winning the game.
‘‘People don’t care if you’re hurt. Once you start playing the game, you’ve gotta be who you are, 1 through 15. If we’ve got guys that are out of the lineup, missing guys, we’ve gotta play the right way. We need to come out playing pissed off.’’
Like LaVine did in the second half Monday, scoring 22 points after halftime and getting to the free-throw line nine times with the mentality of attacking the paint.
It’s a mentality that LaVine needs to use from game to game in this final push.
‘‘I put it on myself where I made a mental decision in the second half to go out there and play like me,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘I’ve gotta start off that way. We got punched in the mouth. We’ve gotta start punching these teams in the mouth. Second half was black-and-white. I think that starts at the top and trickles down.’’
LaVine knows it starts with him. He knows it’s time to lead by example, knee pain be damned. It’s about the Bulls getting back to the team that showed little mercy early in the season.
‘‘We need to continue getting back to what we were doing before, and I think we’ll find that,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘We need to in the last stretch of these games.’’