At the start of the season, Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine just wanted to get comfortable around the basket again.
After all, that’s his comfort zone — floating with his head above the rim, one arm cocked to throw down a vicious dunk. But after offseason knee surgery and recovery, LaVine struggled to find the same confidence to start the season.
Inconsistency was LaVine’s main source of frustration. On some drives to the basket, his body responded normally — knees springing into takeoff, body rising well above the rim, the ensuing dunk or finger roll effortlessly dropping through the net.
At other times, the same approach felt laborious, his trajectory undershot or off balance, the ball jamming into the rim or skittering off the backboard.
As the Bulls now near the midway point of the season, LaVine finally feels he has shaken the inconsistency — and gotten back to his signature style of play.
“I’m feeling better,” LaVine said. “You’re going to have some ups and downs. I expected it, I understand it. The last 10 or 15 games, I felt like myself.”
In the 10 games before Monday night’s 133-118 loss to the Houston Rockets at the United Center, LaVine averaged 24.3 points on 52.8% shooting and four assists. While his season scoring average remains lower than usual — 22.1 points after ranging between 23.7 and 27.4 the last four seasons — it’s trending in the correct direction, providing relief for LaVine and his teammates.
(LaVine added wryly he already would have returned to his Bulls career average of 24.2 points if the referees had helped him out with a couple more trips to the line.)
Most promising is a return to form around the basket, where LaVine is shooting 66.9% in the restricted area. He isn’t driving as much as he did in earlier years of playing hero ball — taking only five attempts in the restricted zone per game — but his efficacy in this area allows him to make an impact when he chooses to slash.
Although it was a source of frustration, LaVine said his rustiness around the rim made sense after being unable to scrimmage or practice heavily in the offseason.
“I didn’t work on it,” he said. “Before training camp, I didn’t pick up a basketball, so I wasn’t jumping or working out or doing anything you usually do during the offseason to prepare yourself for the season. I got that on the run during games.”
A similar rhythm is returning to LaVine’s long-range shooting, which steadily improved over the last 10 games before Monday.
LaVine averaged 8.5 3-point attempts in November, then sliced that number to 6.6 in December entering Monday while making just as many — 2.7 per game. The reduced attempts without a drop in production had improved his 3-point accuracy from 31.8% in November to 41.1% in December.
As the stingiest long-range shooting team in the league (28.9 3-point attempts per game entering Monday), the Bulls know they need to take more 3s. But for LaVine, figuring out his shot has been just as important as amping up his attempts.
With his accuracy returning from each of his comfort zones on the court, LaVine feels he finally has shaken the funk from the first two months of the season — another positive sign for the Bulls as they took a three-game winning streak into Monday’s game.
“I just needed to get back in the rhythm and the timing,” LaVine said. “If you don’t do it, you lose it.”