CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Few forces are strong enough to withstand the momentum of Zach LaVine when he picks up steam on the way to the basket.
It could be easy for the casual viewer to sum up LaVine’s scoring around the basket as an act of pure physicality. But once he’s in the air, LaVine’s finishing is elevated to something close to an art form — cradle the ball from his fingertips to his palm, tug it right, skip it left, flip it upward off the glass, crush it down past the rim.
This isn’t new for LaVine, but the creative element was missing from his game in the early months of the season. It took until December for LaVine to feel like himself after an offseason left knee surgery.
In the last two months, his bounce has returned with a vengeance — and might have brought with it the best version of LaVine yet.
“It pretty much opened up my whole game,” LaVine told the Tribune. “I’m able to do everything I need to.”
LaVine and the Bulls entered their road game Friday against the Charlotte Hornets at 36-40 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of the Washington Wizards for the last spot in the play-in tournament.
Since Feb. 1, LaVine has led the Bulls in scoring with 27.3 points per game on 53.1% shooting — and the bulk of that efficient scoring starts around the rim. In that span, LaVine shot 69.2% within 5 feet of the rim, averaging 26% of his total production in that range.
The slashing drives force defenders to make costly errors, affording LaVine 6.6 trips to the free-throw line per game in the last two months after he earned fewer than four in the opening four months of the season. And LaVine has a visible joy to how he lays siege to the rim, dodging defenders and scooping shots around flailing hands.
This is perhaps the most important shift in LaVine’s play around the rim. In the most high-pressure situations, he’s trying out new tricks — and more often than not, they work.
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Of course, experimentation in the middle of a game can’t always look pretty.
“I had one against the Clippers where I took, like, six steps on accident,” LaVine said with a laugh. “You have some good ones, you have some bad ones. But if you stay attacking and you stay aggressive, I don’t think anybody can blame me for that.”
When LaVine vaults himself toward the basket, most of what follows comes down to muscle memory. But that can only be built in repetition, which was the key to last summer for LaVine.
After undergoing surgery in May, LaVine couldn’t scrimmage or undergo contact drills. So he worked on expanding his repertoire of moves in the paint, finding extra side steps and handles that could counter even the best rim defenders.
Some of those moves are pure force, like the one-handed tomahawk slams that have dominated Bulls highlight reels in recent weeks. But LaVine also wanted to add a crafty edge to his finishing. That relies on nuance — a midair shift of the eyes, a readjustment of his grip to carve out the marginal space necessary to get the ball over the lip of the rim.
“You just look and see what you can add to your game,” LaVine said. “I’m always figuring out how to add different moves and put spin on the ball.”
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LaVine never tried to style his finishing after one particular player, but he studies contemporaries throughout the league to pick up moves. He considers Kyrie Irving to be the most elite finisher in the league and he watches the Dallas Mavericks guard closely to glean how to improve his scoring.
When it comes to the greatest of all time, the answer for LaVine is immediate and close to home: Michael Jordan. But while Jordan always will be the blueprint for finishing in the air, there’s one key difference that keeps LaVine from fully emulating the Bulls legend — the size of his hands.
“If I had big hands I think that would help me out — but I can’t even palm the ball well,” LaVine joked.
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As one of the team’s primary scorers, LaVine knows his role — shoot first, do everything else second. New teammate Patrick Beverley jokingly (or not) told him never to pass the ball. But as LaVine’s threat as a rim finisher skyrockets, it also makes him a better facilitator.
It might seem that increased scoring would result from a slight shift toward selfishness. But LaVine’s assist rate has stayed consistent even as his shot production increased, climbing to 4.8 assists per game in the last month.
“Zach’s always been a very, very efficient scorer, and he’ll remain efficient when he shoots,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s just too good of a scorer. He’s going to be efficient. He’s got to be thinking about how when he’s attacking like that, how much that impacts the rest of the group — because it does in a very positive way.”
“It’s not so much about him passing all the time or shooting all the time. It’s just those quick, decisive decisions where there’s a rhythm and flow to it.”
Acrobatics at the rim always have been LaVine’s calling card — just check his tape in the 2016 All-Star dunk contest against Aaron Gordon. But the start of this season emphasized to LaVine the mercurial nature of his athletic style.
Now that his buoyancy has returned, LaVine is relishing the opportunity to lead the Bulls through his creativity at the rim.
“Hopefully I keep my explosiveness for the next 10 years, but we’ll see what happens,” LaVine said. “For now, at least I can stay in the air a little bit longer than most people.”