With 18.4 seconds to play in Friday night’s contest between the Chicago Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Zach LaVine went up for a three-pointer, and was fouled on the shot by Jimmy Butler. LaVine converted on all three free-throws to give the Bulls a 114-113 lead.
The Tom Thibodeau led Timberwolves would come up empty on the other end in their bid for a final possession victory against the rebuilding Bulls. After years of playing the role of closer for the Bulls at the United Center, Jimmy Butler not only failed to close out what should have been a Minnesota win, he made the fatal mistake that allowed the Bulls to take the lead for good.
Every single Bulls fan had February 9 circled in their calendars after the Chicago Bulls shipped the fan-favorite Butler to Minnesota last June on draft night. Friday night marked the return of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and of course former head coach, Tom Thibodeau. The fans gave the former Bulls a raucous welcome during the opening introductions, and of course cheered as the Bulls played a lengthy tribute video to Butler and Gibson on the jumbo-tron during a timeout in the opening quarter.
But in a strangely satisfying turn of events, it was a former Timberwolves player, Zach LaVine who stole the show from the duo of former Bulls.
As I had hoped, Jimmy Butler had himself quite the ballgame on Friday night, pouring in 38 points to go along with 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals in 40 minutes of action. A vintage Jimmy “Buckets” performance, and his third consecutive game with at least 30 points. Butler even gave Minnesota a chance to win in the final minute when he broke a 111-111 tie with a bank shot from the left side.
But Zach LaVine wasn’t about to allow Jimmy Butler to walk off the United Center floor a winner, as he drilled a three to tie the game at 111, and then drew the three-shot foul and hit all three free-throws to give the Bulls a win on Friday night. LaVine was dubbed expendable by the Timberwolves last summer when they traded the high-flying guard for Jimmy Butler, and the story-line had little to do with LaVine on Friday night — until he changed the narrative and busted up Butler’s homecoming party with his Chicago coming out party.
LaVine notched 35 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist in his best performance to date in his brief Bulls resume since returning from ACL surgery. Early in the first quarter, LaVine hit the lane hard and sliced between defenders before throwing down a thunderous jam. Later in the game LaVine worked the Minnesota defense over and made his way to the basket for a beautiful layup after working in isolation the the top of the arc. The game-tying and winning plays were the icing on the cake in the passing of the torch in Chicago, as well as a look at LaVine’s versatile skill-set.
Sure the win on Friday night is counterproductive to the “tank” formula, but it was LaVine himself who said last month that the players are here to do a job, and that job has nothing to do with losing basketball games for the sake of a draft pick.
This win was worth the minor setback in the quest for the best draft position. This win was a poetic turning of the page for the Bulls. The former “alpha” was defeated in a late game head-to-head battle by the very player he was traded for. Jimmy Butler, still a beloved Bull in our hearts, had himself a signature performance, but Zach LaVine and the Bulls had the last laugh as they sent the former Bulls packing with a defeat.
Despite the game playing out the way that it did down the stretch, LaVine said after the game that he thought it was more coincidence than destiny, and he doesn’t want to be the next Jimmy Butler, he just want’s to be Zach LaVine.
“I’m not here to replace anybody but to become the next young guy for the Chicago Bulls, work my butt off and take this back to where it should be. You can’t replace a guy when you’re not that person. I’m Zach LaVine. I’m going to play like me, act like me. That’s just how I carry myself.”
Sorry Zach, that’s just how sports work. Sports are an escape for fans, a macho soap opera at times, and the story-lines are what make them so entrancing. Nonetheless, if LaVine keeps on churning out performances reminiscent of Friday night, he’ll be as beloved in Chicago as Jimmy Butler was in no time at all. Here’s to hoping that last summer’s swap was one of the rare instances where both teams might have “won” the trade.