High-pressure free throws are a lynchpin in the resume of a leader/star player. The clutch-iest players of all-time: Jordan, Kobe, Bird, etc. – had zero fear of stepping to the line to sink free throws to tie or win the game. Sure, it’s reasonably easy for a professional to make a set shot from 15 feet away, in a vacuum. What might suck however, is attempting to swish a pair, or (gulp) 3 in a row with the game on the line in a stadium (somewhat) full of opposing fans and all your teammates, and your fans depending on you. For Zach LaVine, however, it’s in the bag. He doesn’t run from those moments. Last night, he stepped up to the line and calmly sunk the high-pressure free throws the Bulls needed to stay in the game. Not every NBA player craves that responsibility – to do that with consistency. Zach does…and can. Add that to his otherworldly scoring ability and you’ve got 2 big checkmarks in the superstar category. Remember, he’s still young at 24. As a playmaker, Zach’s game might still be evolving. If last night is any indication – it’s trending upward.
The Bulls were down big in the 4th quarter in D.C. – but LaVine & co. willed themselves to an unexpected comeback to tie the game and eventually win it in OT. Lauri Markkanen was the only one cooking early. The Finnisher ended up with 31 points. He kept them afloat for the majority of the game, until Zach came to life late. Kris Dunn played tough D on All-Star Bradley Beal and chipped in 15 points. The Bulls were down 6 with 90 seconds left in the 4th, when Zach came down and drained a 3. Isaiah Thomas missed a corner 3 and Lauri missed one on the other end. Thomas missed on a jumped, then Zach missed on a 3 of his own. Beal couldn’t hit on a 16-footer – and the Bulls called timeout, down 96-93 with 7.7 seconds left. Inbounds pass went to Zach, who drew a foul on a 3-pt attempt from the Wizards’ marksman, Davis Bertans. 5.5 seconds left. Down 3. 3 free throws to tie it. Zach sank all 3, with ease. The Bulls comeback was complete, but the Wiz had 5.5 to work with – and a star of their own named Bradley Beal. Beal drove and hit on a nifty stepback in the lane. The Wizards led by 2 with half a second left. The Bulls hopes sunk. Until Isaac Bonga fouled Zach on a lob attempt at the rim. Ill-advised foul, especially sending LaVine to the line. Zach strolled up and hit 2-of-2. To tie the game with 0.5 left. “Easiest points I’ll get all night,” Zach said. On to overtime.
The Wizards led by 3 when LaVine drove to the lane with under a minute left. He dished to Wendell Carter Jr. who was fouled. Carter hit both free throws (a Washington lane violation gave him a second chance at #2) and the Bulls were down 1. Beal couldn’t convert on a layup and Ryan Arcidiacono grabbed the rebound. Zach got the ball and drove to the paint. Anzejs Pasecniks rotated toward LaVine, who elevated and dropped a perfect pass to Carter for a slam dunk. Bulls now led 110-109 with 9 seconds left in OT. But Beal was gonna get a shot. The All-Star got the ball with Shaq Harrison on him(Dunn fouled out.) Beal got to the same spot he hit from at the end of regulation, but Shaq didn’t bite on a pump fake and Wendell backed up Shaq. The shot fell short and the Bulls won. They needed that one. Zach LaVine, the playmaker. More of that – and the Bulls might have an All-Star of their own.