SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Zach LaVine was “pissed off.”
Not just with his first-half performance against Sacramento on Monday night, and not just with the ongoing discomfort in his left knee. Not even with his teammates.
No, it was the outside optics of all of it.
He’s supposed to be one of the faces of a Bulls team that spent weeks atop the Eastern Conference standings, serving notice to the entire league that the organization was now different. That LaVine was different.
And as of Tuesday, both he and the Bulls looked more like pretenders than contenders in an ongoing fraud investigation that’s continued to turn up more and more damning evidence against them.
That’s why the All-Star promised that a heart-to-heart within the locker room had to take place sooner than later, and that also meant some self-reflection of his own.
“We need to have those conversations and get on point going into this last stretch because it’s not going to get any easier,” LaVine said of the 14 regular-season games left. “We don’t know when, and who is going to be there, who is going to be injured and out the lineup, but we gotta play the right way and have a certain identity. I don’t want to be repetitive, I want to obviously be positive, but we have to learn from [the Kings loss]. If not, that’s on us.”
But “us” carries different weight.
LaVine’s been around long enough to know that as well as DeMar DeRozan has played this season, the blame game will fall on LaVine first, especially with his dip in numbers on both ends of the floor since the knee began acting up months ago.
That’s the high-wire act he’s trying to pull off.
Keep the knee out of harm’s way so that he can be there for his teammates under the bright lights of playoff basketball, but also be a force on the court so teams like a Sacramento can’t play giant killers.
“It’s tough,” LaVine said of that balance. “If we knew the answer it would be so much easier. I wish I could just pick it out of a hat. I think we’re all extremely tough and we’re all trying to do the right thing for each other, selfless, but at a certain point you’ve got to put that in your mind and throw everything else out, and what matters now is going out and winning the game.
“People don’t care if you’re hurt. Once you start playing the game you gotta be who you are — one through 15 — if we got guys that are out of the lineup, missing guys, we gotta play the right way. We need to come out playing pissed off.”
Like LaVine did in the second half on Monday, scoring 22 points out of the locker room and getting to the free throw line nine times because of an aggressive mentality in attacking the paint.
A mentality that LaVine needs to bottle up from game to game in this final push.
“I put it on myself where I made a mental decision in the second half to go out there and play like me,” LaVine said. “I’ve gotta start off that way. We got punched in the mouth. We gotta start punching these teams in the mouth. Second half was black and white. I think that starts at the top and trickles down.”
Starting with LaVine, which he wasn’t running from. The veteran knows that it’s time to lead by example, and knee pain be damned. It’s about getting back to that team that showed very little mercy early on in the season.
“We need to continue getting back to what we were doing before, and I think we’ll find that,” LaVine said. “We need to in the last stretch of these games.”