In the waning minutes of the Chicago Bulls’ 108-107 loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday night, Zach LaVine found himself in an unfamiliar place: on the bench, watching his team attempt to finish a comeback at the United Center.
Coach Billy Donovan pulled the two-time All-Star guard — the most expensive player on the roster after signing a five-year, $215 maximum contract this summer. LaVine shot 1-for-14 from the field and finished with four points.
Magic guard Jalen Suggs drained a 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds left, sending the Bulls to their fourth straight defeat.
Donovan opted to replace LaVine with second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu for the final 3 minutes, 43 seconds. LaVine believed he could have affected the result if he had played in the final minutes.
“It’s a tough decision,” LaVine said. “Obviously I want to be out there. That’s the reason I’m here is to go out there and be Zach LaVine. But it’s the coach’s decision. I can’t just go out there and jump on the court even if I want to. Obviously I’ve got to do a better job in the beginning of the game, but you play a guy like me down the stretch. That’s what I do.”
LaVine shot 7.1%, the worst percentage of his nine-year NBA career. His previous low was 9.1% against the Boston Celtics in 2018.
Donovan attributed the decision to sit LaVine on the guard’s off-shooting night, adding that he needed to make the choice for a closing lineup based on who was playing at their best. Reserves Alex Caruso and Javonte Green also closed the game after strong performances in the second half.
It wasn’t just LaVine’s shot that fell off-kilter in the loss. He had two assists and one turnover, struggling to handle the ball late during a short stint at point guard. LaVine’s frustration clearly built in the second half — he ignored wide-open teammates in the paint to jack up 3-point attempts and missed back-to-back layups at the rim.
“(LaVine) had a tough night shooting, and I thought that group there really fought their way back into the game,” Donovan said. “It was one of those games where he just didn’t have a great game. Great players, that happens. He cares deeply about the team, but he just wasn’t playing well. I made a decision and I felt like that group had really worked their way back into the game and I wanted to give them an opportunity to close it.”
But LaVine was firm in his criticism of Donovan’s decision, adding that he was undecided about whether he would talk with the coach regarding the closing lineup once he had time to digest the game.
“I’ve missed a lot of shots, man, but I’ve had a lot of games where I played terrible and then in four or five minutes, I can get 15 or 16 points,” LaVine said. “I just wasn’t able to shoot the next shot.”
After ramping up from his left knee injury in the early weeks of the season. LaVine’s shooting efficiency hasn’t fully returned. He’s shooting 44% — down from 47.6% last season — and averaging 2.2 fewer points per game.
Despite the slight decline, LaVine’s 3-point shooting efficiency has remained steady (3.1 made 3-pointers per game). He often has led the most efficient rotation in the lineup during the bridge rotation from the first to second quarters, pulling the Bulls back from early deficits.
Despite LaVine’s lackluster night, Donovan said the guard’s absence from the closing lineup did not reflect his plans for future rotations.
“I don’t look at it as anything else than a one-off game where this is what was going on,” Donovan said.
DeMar DeRozan, who scored a game-high 41 points, said the decision would feel less controversial if the Bulls had won, and he blamed the loss on the lackluster first half rather than the final minutes.
Although DeRozan said he understood LaVine’s frustration, he voiced confidence in his teammate’s ability to bounce back from the frustrating night.
“There’s been plenty of times throughout my career there’ve been games where I was struggling and I had to sit and be the best teammate I had to be as well,” DeRozan said. “It happens. Can’t dwell on that. I guarantee you, next game he’ll be better. We all know that’s not who he is, not who he’s about.”