Zach LaVine out duels Damian Lillard, lifts Bulls off Blazers

CHICAGO – Zach LaVine knew the Bulls would have a hard time defending Damian Lillard.

“You can only do so much with a player who’s averaged 40 (points) over the last six games,” LaVine said of the Portland Trail Blazers star.

The task was made significantly more difficult after Bulls coach Billy Donovan announced before the game that guard Alex Caruso would be unavailable due to a sprained left foot.

“There’s no question he’s hurting our defense when he’s not there,” Donovan said. “With Alex out, our backcourt will have a real challenge tonight against (Infernee) Simmons and against Lillard. They are elite scorers.”

So is Lavigne.

LaVine saved Lillard’s game-high 40 points with 36 in the Bulls’ 129-121 shootout win Saturday inside the United Center.

It was one of Lavigne’s best performances this season. He started hot, pumped out 15 points in the first quarter, and continued to hit shots to help Chicago regain a one-time 17-point deficit. He made 11 of 18 shots, 5 of 10 3-pointers and all 9 free throw attempts. He added six rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes.

“I thought it was really decisive,” Donovan said. “I think he was aggressive when he went. And when he went, he was decisive. And when he got a shot he fired it. I think he read the game really well, and I think he just took what was there. … For me, it’s very hard to protect him when he’s that decisive and that aggressive.”

Led by LaVine, the Bulls have shot 60 percent, which is the second-highest shooting percentage of the season. They hit 63.5 percent in a December home win over Dallas. The Bulls also dished out 32 passes against just 12 turnovers, which has been a problem area lately.

DeMar DeRozan did what he usually does, breaking down defensemen at midrange before finishing with 27 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. Bullpen Nikola Vucevic added 23 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.

While in the first half Lillard might flirt with 60 points, the Bulls have confidence in the shootout.

“We have three guys who can get 40 on any given night,” said Lavigne. “And they obviously have a couple of guys in there who could do that as well. But I feel like I started fast. He started fast. We had to start doubling him down. It’s a good game when you play against someone like that. I think the opponent comes out in you. But you have to be We have this mentality in every game. I think that’s what was holding us back.”

The way the Bulls came back from a 17-point deficit was a little different. Although the Bulls put together some of their best stretches when they went down by large margins, there have been many instances when the Bulls folded. But the Bulls drafted a 22-4 run in five extended minutes to close out the third quarter and turn the momentum around.

“Offensively, we’re good enough to get back into any game,” said Lavigne. “But I think we started to play for each other and play on the defensive end. Our energy grew, especially some of the guys – Ayew (Dosunmu), Pat (Williams) and Kobe (White).”

Donovan said the bulls kept their course.

“When we went down, we were in the mindset of where we were trying to solve problems, and I think that’s where we need to be,” Donovan said. “I thought it was a positive move because I think sometimes when we get into some of those cycles that other teams go on, we can kind of be fragmented a little bit, or our offense can affect our defense or pre-play. And I thought the guys worked on it. Stay together and solve problems.”

Can oxen carry him?

“We’ve talked about it enough,” Lavigne said. “We know how to play this way. We’ve done it and shown it before. Now we just have to do it constantly, come in the next game with the same mentality and keep it going.”

(Photo: David Banks/USA Today)


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