This was the stage that Zach LaVine has wanted to be on for years.
A nationally televised game, the United Center at a fever pitch, and the three-headed monster of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant in the building for bragging rights atop the Eastern Conference.
A meaningful game in January.
And not the pretend “meaningful games” that former coach Jim Boylen would try peddling to the masses, passing off two teams battling for a 10th seed play-in spot as meaningful. No, Nets-Bulls – and a Nets team with it’s “Big Three” for just the 16th time since its creation – each looking to make a statement about their place in the conference’s power structure.
One did and the other was embarrassed.
Thanks to a shock-and-awe 43-8 run in the second half, the Nets hammered the home team, handing the Bulls their worst loss of the season in the 138-112 laugher.
As for that three-headed monster? Durant finished with 27 and Harden with 25. Irving was held in check with just nine. The Bulls’ “smaller three” were led by LaVine’s 22 and DeMar DeRozan’s 19.
“I don’t think you throw it out, I think you own it,” coach Billy Donovan said of the loss. “I think our guys have worked really hard up to this point to be where we are in the standings, and I think with that there’s an even greater responsibility.
“We have to understand and learn that these are some of the things I’ve been talking about from a defensive standpoint. … I’m not saying we didn’t want to win the game but we have to understand how to play in games like this.”
It didn’t help that the Bulls lost starting forward Derrick Jones Jr. minutes into the game to a right knee injury, and did so at a position that was already thin.
Alfonzo McKinnie stepped in and through the first half the Bulls showed they could trade punches with the Nets. Until they couldn’t.
“Understand we got our ass kicked [Wednesday],” DeRozan said. “It’s how we bounce back from it. Let it sink in, let it suck, let it hurt. It seemed like everything went wrong, obviously it had to with the run they went on. Everything was on us.
“We’re going to get every team’s best shot.”
The hope is they can take that shot, despite what it looked like against the Nets (26-14). Donovan feels like LaVine will be able to, especially when it matters.
“He is the ultimate team guy,” Donovan said, discussing what LaVine has transformed into. “He just tries to play the right way.”
That’s been on display this entire season. Heck, it was on display since the summer when LaVine joined Team USA for the gold medal run in the Olympics.
The Tuesday dominance over Detroit was just the latest example of why Donovan has seen his All-Star continue to mature.
A 10-shot, 10-point game in the past would have irked LaVine. Instead, LaVine was all smiles, still grabbing nine rebounds and handing out seven assists, with his only concern being getting the W.
“I think he realizes there’s probably a little bit more help around him than maybe he has had with Vooch [Nikola Vucevic] and DeMar,” Donovan said. “He can go hunt shots because he can get his shot any time he wants to. But he really is very, very much invested in winning. He’s very much invested in the team. And he wants to do things that are sustainable for a long time.”
The next step is doing against the league’s elite. Losses to Dallas and Brooklyn in the last week show that this group is blinking for the first time this season. It’s about getting back on track.
“We got an ass-whooping,” LaVine said. “It happens sometimes. The third quarter killed us. Go back look at the film. It’s just something to get you a little more hungry.”