Bulls guard Zach LaVine gets introspective about his defensive issues

LaVine admitted that he took some of the criticism of his defense “on the chin.” While he’s not going to hold his defensive rating as the end-all, be-all stat to judge how he has played, LaVine knows his defense has to improve.

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The Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell shoots past the Bulls’ Zach LaVine during a Dec. 31 game at the United Center.

The Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell shoots past the Bulls’ Zach LaVine during a Dec. 31 game at the United Center.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — It hasn’t been the smoothest season for guard Zach LaVine.

He had his offseason regimen thrown off-kilter after cleanup surgery on his left knee, he came into the regular season on a load-management schedule, he had some rough on-court moments and he was even benched by coach Billy Donovan in the final minutes of a loss to the Magic.

And while LaVine is never one to be short with the media, there have been instances in which he has been almost defiant with the line of questioning.

On Monday, he took a different tack, getting introspective when discussing the criticism of his defense.

It started as a simple question about the likelihood of him ever getting back to the defensive level he played at through the first 15 games last season in which he sported a career-best 103.4 rating.

He knew that number well, saying “103.4’’ as the question was being posed.

The number he didn’t want to be acquainted with was the 115.8 defensive rating he was carrying before the game against the Cavaliers, which was the second-worst on the team after Goran Dragic (118.3).

LaVine hasn’t been criticized for his on-the-ball defense or his effort at the start of possessions as much as for letting up too often as possessions go on, and he was willing to take that criticism “on the chin.’’

“That might just be finishing plays as the possession goes on,’’ LaVine said. “Getting a rebound, one more contest, one more rotation, one more effort . . . and, you know, you can take that on the chin and say, ‘Yeah, there have been possessions where if I have to make that last rotation, I have to give a better effort toward that.’ That’s something I do have to be better at.’’

And not just because he carries that max-contract designation on his back, either.

LaVine maintained that there was no added pressure with the five-year, $215 million max deal he signed in July. It’s not about improving his effort on defense because of the new tax bracket as much as improving for his teammates.

That incident in the locker room at halftime of the Dec. 18 game against the Timberwolves in Minnesota was in large part triggered by LaVine’s lack of communication on defense and not finishing out possessions.

His teammates became frustrated because they knew he had more to give.

LaVine demonstrated with Team USA in the summer of 2021 that he can lock down opposing players, then he carried that mentality into the start of the 2021-22 season. The numbers backed his play, but when his left knee began to act up in early December, the defense dropped off.

With his knee concerns behind him now, it’s about getting back to that guy who held up a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics.

“I don’t look at defensive rating because a lot of other numbers impact it,’’ LaVine said. “It’s like plus/minus. If you’re on a good team, your plus/minus is going to be high. If you’re on a bad team, your plus/minus is going to be low. That’s just the way it is. I go on how I’m playing.

“Obviously, I always feel good on the ball [defensively]. If I’m active, getting in passing lanes, making the right rotations, if I’m locked in on that side of the ball, that’s how I judge. I feel like I’ve been a lot better, and I need to continue to focus on that. At the end of the day, I’ve got to do my job down there just like everyone else on that side of the ball. I’ve got to take care of business.’’

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