Since the last week of training camp, Zach LaVine has barely practiced.
The Bulls guard has gone through several shootarounds, done some light shooting on his own, and played in just four of the first seven regular-season games, including in the 114-109 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday.
So to expect that the starting unit is anywhere close to running like a well-oiled machine is a fairytale at best.
There’s no good one on the horizon.
As long as LaVine is under the umbrella of his current left knee management schedule, the on-again-off-again doesn’t do anything for team chemistry or building out the offensive and defensive packages as the season goes on.
Coach Billy Donovan has admitted that, and so have the players.
Even DeMar DeRozan acknowledged that it’s less than ideal, but was banking on the long game in all of this. According to DeRozan, if they can weather having LaVine as a part-time teammate for the time being, there’s a pay-off down the road.
“It’s tough, but it’s going to make us better at the same time,” DeRozan said. “Other guys that get the opportunity to play, get experience, get reps, that that next-man-up mentality. The most important thing is having [LaVine] in the long run, and we all understand that. As long as he gets better and gets stronger, and we continue to tighten up things when we don’t have him, it’s just going to make us that much better down the line.”
Until then, however, there’s just going to have to be more growing pains as they try and figure all of this out. That means more inconsistent quarters of play.
That’s been evident at the start of games – with or without LaVine – as first quarters have been this team’s Achilles heel, especially in three-point defense.
Philadelphia (3-4) was just the latest team to take advantage of that, building a 36-22 lead in that opening stanza, and doing it courtesy of a 5-for-9 shooting clinic from three-point range.
“The first quarter … actually after the first quarter, the three-point line has been relatively even quarters two-through-four on shooting percentages,” Donovan said. “Outside of Indiana, you look at the first quarter, and teams have been shooting an astronomical percentage. We’ve got to do a better job starting the game. We’ve got to have better awareness and recognition on some of these situations.”
Practicing and playing together on a more consistent basis might help, but that’s just not this team’s reality right now.
Case in point? The plus-minus marks of all the starters in that opening quarter on Saturday was all on the minus side, with LaVine a minus-13.
What this Bulls (3-4) team has been good at in the early part of the season? Halftime adjustments and playing some stellar basketball in the third quarter.
They did that in the season opener against Miami, earlier this week against Boston, and then again with the 76ers, outscoring them 31-26 in that third to make it a game.
Just like that a first-half 19-point deficit was a nail-biter, and would stay that way throughout the fourth.
That was until Joel Embiid had something to say about it. The big man hit a three-pointer with 18.1 seconds left to break the tie after a LaVine miss. The Bulls missed on two opportunities to cut into that lead but it wasn’t to be. Nor was slaying the “Embiid Curse,” as the star center improved to 12-0 lifetime against the Bulls.
“To me the disappointing part of the game was you’re trying to climb out of 19 points,” Donovan said. “We’ve shown it, but we’ve got to do it more consistently.”