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Despite a career-high 50 from Zach LaVine, Bulls lose a heartbreaker

It wasn’t a must-win game with 21 left in the regular season, but a victory not only would have helped the Bulls in the Eastern Conference standings, it would have made LaVine’s career night more special.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine spent the first half of Friday night’s game against the Hawks chasing history.

In the second half, he was doing everything he could to try to scratch out a win.

Fifty points never felt so empty.

Despite LaVine adding his first 50-point night to a career season that included his first All-Star Game appearance, the Bulls (22-29) lost a heartbreaker 120-108 in Atlanta.

Did that cheapen what LaVine did — shooting 18-for-31, including 7-for-12 from three-point range? It shouldn’t have. But try selling that to LaVine, who also added eight rebounds and five assists. He said he’d trade all those numbers for a win.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “Played a really, really good [first] half. It sucks when you’ve got an opportunity like that to win, so obviously I’d much rather take the win right now.

“With Toronto [on Thursday], we started off slow, and I wanted to pick us up with the back-to-back, so I was going to come out aggressive either way.”

LaVine established from tipoff that he was on a business trip, scoring the Bulls’ first 10 points. By the second quarter, his one-man show had the Hawks’ defense bleeding. It included a streak of 25 straight points that finally was interrupted when Nikola Vucevic made a hook shot with 49.5 seconds left in the half.

LaVine went into the locker room with 39 points, having joined some serious company. He became the first Bull to score 30 or more points in the first half since Michael Jordan’s 30 against the Trail Blazers in 1997. In fact, it was the third-best first-half performance in the NBA in the last 25 years, behind Kobe Bryant (42 points for the Lakers against Jordan and the Wizards in 2003) and Klay Thompson (40 for the Warriors against the Pacers in 2016).

Two problems, however: There was a second half, and there was Trae Young.

While LaVine got his 50 points, Young had 42 for the Hawks, along with nine assists and eight rebounds. The Hawks (28-25) overcame the 13-point deficit from the first half by pressuring the Bulls’ still-shaky defense — and by deciding anyone but LaVine was going to beat them. Traps and continual blitzes . . . the Hawks threw everything at LaVine.

“We had a hard time with ball containment,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I think in that second half, we had a much more difficult time [defensively]. We obviously had a hard time on both ends of the floor.

“What happened in that second half is there was no question they were going to try and take the ball out of Zach’s hands. When they started trapping him, we just didn’t make enough plays. We had to make some plays, and we didn’t make them.”

The good news for LaVine and his teammates — if there was any — is that they didn’t lose their standing in the Eastern Conference. With 21 games left, the Bulls still control the final play-in spot.

“It was special,” center Nikola Vucevic said of LaVine’s performance. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something like that. It looked so easy. He wasn’t forcing, he wasn’t trying — it came so naturally to him. It was beautiful to see. I wish we could have done better and helped him win the game, made the night even more special for him. I know he wished we would have won.”