Game Winner

I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things to do with a basketball as a kid was pretend to hit game winning shots. You know how it goes, you’re dribbling the ball and counting down from ten seconds or five seconds, a head fake, “4”, a shoulder shimmy, “3”, a crossover, “2”, a step back, “1”, and you raise up, releasing the ball before that internal buzzer “ERRRRRRR!!!” Nothing but the bottom of the net. You’re a hero. You’ve won the championship. Congratulations MVP.

So it’s no surprise when I say, I completely understand why Zach LaVine took that long, contested three pointer at the end of the San Antonio Spurs game Monday night, a game which the Bulls lost by one point (108-107). I would have done the same thing. I would have held that ball until the last few seconds, and gone into that long rehearsed routine which results in an inevitable jumper over an unfortunate defender and my ultimate victory. That’s the problem with LaVine’s shot. If a dope like me can come up with that exact same strategy, then it’s not good enough to win an actual NBA game. A head fake and a jumper is not the answer.

A lot has been said and written about that last Bulls possession. Fans have been asking questions: “Shouldn’t they have called a timeout and set up a play?” “Why did LaVine ignore Coach Hoiberg and wave off the Wendell Carter Jr screen?” “The Bulls only needed two points, why didn’t Zach attack the basket?” All good questions, the first two were answered in post game interviews, and we all know the answer to the last question; whether it’s on a court or in our imaginations, we’ve all taken that shot.

If Zach made that 3, the entire conversation is different. If he wins the game, then I’m sitting here writing a post about how clutch he is. The most important thing about the shot, more important than whether it went in or not, is that Zach felt comfortable taking it.

Remember just a season ago, the Bulls found themselves in similar circumstances, injured, young, and struggling to win games. It was Kris Dunn who had to step up and provide late game heroics in order to put the Bulls in the win column, but it took some time, and it took some miscues and missed shots. LaVine is going through those same growing pains.

The good news is LaVine has already won games for the Bulls this season and last. He is ahead of the curve. From here on out he needs figure out how to continue winning games in the final possession. LaVine can start by scratching off “head fake into contested 3” as one of his go-to shots. While youtube is full of players making amazing shots with oodles of defenders draped all over them, those guys are usually in the flow of a set play or have gotten to their “spot” on the floor.

I recently watched an interview with Robert Horry, who is widely thought of as being one of the most clutch players in NBA history. He was talking about hitting one of his many game winning shots that took place during the Kobe Bryant era in Los Angeles, and their run to the championship. In this particular play, the clock was ticking away and Kobe was dribbling the ball at the top of the three point line. Kobe waived his teammates out of the lane, indicating he was going to take it himself. So Horry went to one of his favorite spots on the floor, the right corner just beyond the three point line. The right corner is where Horry felt most comfortable taking a shot. Bryant drove down the lane, and predictably the defense collapsed in on him. Kobe kicked a pass out to Horry in the corner, and he calmly drained the game winning three.

Robert Horry immediately after beating the Sacramento Kings with a clutch shot. (Picture from Slam Online)

If you watch other legends in the clutch, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan in particular, you notice that even if they couldn’t get to a comfortable/favorite spot on the floor, they would shoot the ball in a comfortably familiar way. Bird had a great jump shot. He would use his length to elevate over defenders and goose neck his shooting arm for the win, or he would employ a turn-around jumper to get enough space to put up his shot. He also had a right handed runner, as part of his clutch shot arsenal, where he would float the ball toward the hoop while off balance or in mid stride. As for Jordan, he regularly employed a fall away jump shot that was nearly impossible to defend. I can’t tell you the hours I spent with my brothers trying to replicate that fall away. It was nasty.

Maybe that spot just beyond the 3 point arc feels comfortable to LaVine. He certainly takes enough of those fading jump shots to believe it’s good enough for a game winner. The only problem I have with him settling for that long jumper is that it felt selfish. I felt like the focus of the shot wasn’t to win the game, but was to make Zach LaVine the hero, to prove he’s a go-to guy. That’s what it felt like, a selfish shot.

Why do you not call a timeout and set up a final play? You don’t want the defense to catch it’s breath and get set up. Easy enough answer, whether you agree with it or not is a matter of opinion. It was Hoiberg’s decision to make and he has to live with it.

Why wave off the Carter pick?

Zach was afraid he would be double teamed… which is exactly what you want if you’re the Bulls. If he is double teamed then somebody is wide open, probably Wendell Carter rolling to the basket. A pass to Carter and the defense collapses to defend the rim. Carter kicks a pass out to the perimeter to, let’s say, a wide open Ryan Arcidiacono (who had just brought the Bulls back from a 7 point deficit with a couple of clutch shots of his own) and maybe they have a W instead of an L.

Why take a contested 3 point shot? It certainly seems like a selfish shot, but maybe there is more to it than just glory. Maybe LaVine has a lot of naysayers he needs to prove wrong, a large contract he needs to justify, and a leadership role the Bulls desperately want him to fill. Maybe it’s because the Bulls filled out their roster of under talented teammates who have proven unreliable in the past, or that LaVine has been forced to carry a franchise full of injuries for months. Maybe he was trying to appease us fans, who expect him to succeed no matter how much pressure is heaped on his shoulders.

In the end, was that the right shot to take? No, but I’m happy LaVine took it. This is the time to figure out how to succeed in the clutch. You’d rather he failed now than in game 7 of the NBA Finals. Hopefully, LaVine learns from this failure, and from his previous successes. I believe he can be a consistent game winner, it’s just a matter of him finding his spots and go-to shots.