Bulls coach Billy Donovan defensive with Zach LaVine’s improvements

While LaVine will never be mistaken for a Jimmy Butler on the defensive side of the ball, he has made some subtle improvements in Year 9, helping Donovan guide the team to a top-five rating.

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Zach LaVine

The Bulls ended the season with a top five defense, and while Zach LaVine is still not going to be mistaken as a stopper, he’s definitely made improvements on that side of the floor.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Zach LaVine’s defense has been a point of contention since he came to the Bulls in the Jimmy Butler trade in 2017.

LaVine has had a few good moments defensively, but his inconsistency has left many scratching their heads.

The Bulls entered the season finale against the Pistons with the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA, however, so that has to say something about LaVine’s performance.

Will he ever be a stopper or a guy who can lock up an opponent’s best wing scorer? Not likely. But the Bulls will have to embrace those subtle strides he has made.

“The thing that I found with players like that, even having Chris Paul for a year or being around Russell Westbrook, even [Kevin] Durant, there’s always this mentality of I’ve got to find different ways to get better,’’ coach Billy Donovan said Sunday. “[LaVine’s] body of work over nine years, can you make some small incremental changes? Is he going to reinvent himself and be totally different after nine years? No, but I do think there are avenues and opportunities for him to grow in a lot of different areas.’’

LaVine actually opted to venture down those avenues a bit more, especially in the second half of the season. The addition of Patrick Beverley might have been a nudge in that direction, but a healthier left knee also helped.

And, to LaVine’s credit, the defense also went through a philosophical change from last season because Donovan realized Lonzo Ball’s availability was going to be a big question mark.

The result was more trapping in the post and scrambling to close out when the ball gets passed back out to the perimeter. Donovan has asked his defense to be great at communication as well as willing to hustle to make the right rotations.

On most nights, LaVine has done his best to get the job done.

“I’ve always felt that [LaVine is] a very good individual defender when he’s in a one-on-one situation,’’ Donovan said. “I think he’s made a strong commitment to try to be better off the ball. I think he’s fighting harder in pick-and-roll. I do think he’s coming over and helping more. He is rotating and scrambling more, so I feel like he’s made a commitment.’’

LaVine’s defense will be front and center Wednesday in Toronto against the Raptors.

In their last meeting in late February, LaVine often found himself guarding 6-7 forward O.G. Anunoby at the start of a possession. It wasn’t the greatest matchup for him. Both players scored 17 points in the Raptors’ victory, and Anunoby also had eight rebounds and was a plus-16.

“Our defense this year wouldn’t be where it’s at if we didn’t have everybody, all five, trying to work,’’ Donovan said. “It’s really hard to overcome and be good defensively when you’re playing five-on-four. I don’t feel like we’ve had that. All those guys have made a pretty strong commitment to one another, making the investment necessary to help each other.’’

Mr. 82

For the first time in his 12-year career, starting center Nikola Vucevic can say he started all 82 regular-season games after getting the nod in the finale.

“As you get older, you get to know your body more,’’ Vucevic said.

“What works for you, what doesn’t. All of those things have helped me come up with a program, a routine, that works well for me.’’

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