In hockey, if you produce a goal, an assist and a fight, it’s a Gordie Howe hat trick.
At Target Center, when a player dunks, hits threes, sprains his ankle on an alley-oop, gets yelled at by his coach and leaps high enough to require landing gear, it’s Zach LaVine Bingo.
LaVine easily filled up his card and the boxscore on Tuesday night, turning the Timberwolves’ home opener into a reminder that on a team featuring two expected superstars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, LaVine, still just 21, is capable on any given night of being the Wolves’ most spectacular player.
The Timberwolves’ recorded pump-up-the-crowd pregame video had nothing on LaVine’s live performance. He scored 31 points in 29 minutes by shooting 11-for-18 from the field, 5-for-9 from the three-point line and 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, as the Wolves beat Memphis-ish 116-80.
Lavine produced four rebounds and two assists, and his plus-minus was 28. (Gorgui Dieng, Wiggins and Towns were from 35 to 39 against a Grizzlies team resting Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.)
It was LaVine’s third career game with 30 points or more, and the third straight game in which he has made at least three three-pointers.
“It felt good,” LaVine said. “Keep shooting.”
That’s Shooter’s Zen. An accurate long jump shot is a marvel of biomechanics of which the shooter should remain blissfully unaware while executing it.
“I’ve always been able to shoot the ball,” LaVine said. “Just confidence and consistency with shooting it. I’ve been working on taking better shots and staying on balance and always having the confidence to shoot it.”
LaVine’s big night offered a reminder of the importance of Dieng’s unselfishness. Dieng signing a below-market contract gives the Wolves a chance at fitting all of their young stars under the salary cap.
LaVine doesn’t have the basketball pedigree of Towns and Wiggins, but he is a living homage to Flip Saunders, who saw a UCLA freshman who hardly played and envisioned nights like Tuesday.
Always able to dunk with flair, LaVine has developed a three-point shooting stroke that makes him all but impossible to guard. He can catch, elevate, square his shoulders on the way up and release from a point where his shot cannot be blocked. Or he can catch in the corner and release before defenders reach him.
Of LaVine’s shooting stroke, teammate Brandon Rush said, “It’s perfect.”
Perhaps his only obvious problem this season has been spraining an ankle when he lands from great heights. Perhaps four times in three games he has had to walk off an apparent sprain, or turned ankle, although he would admit only to the one he suffered on Tuesday.
“I might have been a little dramatic with it, but that did hurt,” LaVine said. “As long as I can walk, I’ll probably come back in the game. I saw my dad in the stands, and I know he was going, ‘Get up, stop being a baby.’ ”
A sore ankle is a small price to pay for the ability to descend from the rafters.
LaVine first gained notoriety for his dunking ability. At this stage of his career, would he rather dunk or make a three-pointer?
“Right now, I don’t think I could dunk,” he said with a smile. “I’d rather shoot the three like I was tonight. I stayed at the three-point line after I rolled my ankle.”
Creativity near the rim. Explosive leaping ability. A shooting stroke that makes three-pointers look like finger-rolls. A work ethic that has transformed him from college backup to rising NBA star. A coach who will demand defensive intensity.
“I think he can be terrific defensively,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, exploding the notion of LaVine as merely a talented one-way player.
There were empty seats at Target Center on Tuesday night. It’s not difficult to imagine, sometime in the next year or two, fans paying scalpers’ prices on 1st Avenue to see Zach LaVine play.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org