HOUSTON – Sounding more like a lawyer than basketball coach, the Timberwolves’ Sam Mitchell “reserves the right” to play Zach LaVine at point guard again someday. But for now that experiment is over, both because of both circumstances and results.
Playing at shooting guard alongside starting point guard Ricky Rubio and often backup Tyus Jones, LaVine has become perhaps the team’s most indispensable player this past month.
He scored 28 points in both Monday’s last-second loss at Phoenix and Wednesday’s victory at Memphis and tied a career high by making six three-pointers against the Grizzlies. He played 40½ minutes at Memphis — his third 40-plus-minute game this month — and has started 13 of the past 15 games, including the past 10 now that veteran guards Kevin Martin and Andre Miller are gone to San Antonio and Jones has become Rubio’s backup.
LaVine has averaged 34 minutes, 18 points and shot 50.9 percent from the field in his past 23 games, dating to late January. He’s shooting 43.9 percent on three-point shots in his past 30 games. Like many of his teammates around him, his efficiency scoring at the rim has improved from the season’s first half to its second, from 60.1 percent in the season’s first 42 games to 68.3 in the next 25 games.
“Just more comfortable,” he said.
Without him on the floor, the Wolves are left without their best volume three-point shooter and needed secondary ballhandler and playmaker on a team Mitchell calls “spread thin” by injuries to Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic and decision to buy out the contracts of Martin and Miller.
“We don’t have anyone coming off our bench with his skill set,” Mitchell said. “Tyus and Ricky have to dominate the ball in everything we do. With Zach out there, we have two guys who can initiate the offense. It’s hard to load up against us. Once we take Zach out of the game, we’re down to just one guy who can handle the ball. We’ve discovered we’re much better when we have two guys out there.”
Mitchell declared LaVine his starting shooting guard over Martin in training camp, but that lasted only a matter of days. Mitchell quickly returned him to backup point guard, a role he played starting last year with his rookie season even if he wasn’t ready for the position’s demands.
Now he is at a shooting-guard spot that is his most natural, although Mitchell said, “I don’t look at Zach as a ‘2’ guard or a point guard. I just look at him as a basketball player and a guard.”
LaVine probably would play center if you asked him.
“You know me,” he said. “I’m cool with whatever position I play at all.”
He calls his increased production a matter of “just opportunity.” It also probably is not a coincidence that he has played 80 percent of his minutes at shooting guard in the season’s second half, including 97 percent since Feb. 3.
“When you’re able to go out there and play freely and get into the offense and be more consistent with your minutes and know where your spots are going to be, that helps out a lot,” LaVine said.
“I feel it’s a bit harder coming off the bench. You don’t know when you’re going to come in or how many shots you’re going to get or what position you’re going to be playing. It’s different. You can still do it, but consistency helps out.”
So does playing beside Rubio.
“With me and Ricky out on the floor, whichever one of us gets it can bring it up,” LaVine said. “We both can run the offense. If someone is pressuring me or Ricky, the other one can bring it up. So it’s working out pretty good.”
LaVine is shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 55.5 percent from three-point range so far on this trip.
“Just making shots, man,” he said. “I’m confident in my shot, confident in my abilities. I’m taking good shots I know I can make and just keep rolling.”
He called himself “a little tired” after playing 40 minutes Wednesday but said his body feels fine except for an issue with his shooting-arm shoulder.
“I don’t know what that’s from,” he said.
Somebody suggested it might be from too many shots.
“No,” he said, “it’s not too many shots.”