Vincent Goodwill

Bulls will stay conservative with Zach LaVine

Bulls will stay conservative with Zach LaVine

The next phase of the Zach LaVine rehabilitation program is days away.

The one where he where actually ... plays.

LaVine, after his prodding to make his debut on the Madison Square Garden stage fell on deaf ears, will play his first game in a Bulls uniform Saturday night against the Detroit Pistons.

In a bit of irony, LaVine tore his ACL last February against the Pistons in Auburn Hills, and he’ll make his return 344 days from that evening.

“I was pushing to play two months ago, but the decision was made for it to be Saturday,” LaVine said Tuesday at practice. “I'm a ballplayer, man. I think we talked about this. I want to be out there, and I want to be able to play. I want to thank all the training staff and coaches, the medical staff in Minnesota as well, getting me back to this point. it was a lot of hard work, lonely nights and long days. This thing is taking forever. Finally back to it, and I'm happy for that.”

LaVine will be under a strict 20-minute limit that the front office and coaching staff will meet upon to discuss how his time will be disseminated. Bulls executive vice president John Paxson addressed the media before LaVine to make the announcement and lay out the plan.

It hasn’t been determined whether he’ll start or come off the bench initially, but one would think it’s only a matter of time before he makes his way to the first five.

“I'm OK with everything. I gotta be okay with that,” LaVine said. “That's where you start, I know it's not gonna stay there. It's just part of getting back. Even though I'm back it's the last part of me getting back with the little bit of restriction. I'll do the best I can.”

LaVine was flashing a smile when talking to the media, clearly ready to begin the next step in his career. He said he had butterflies at the possibility and will have to calm himself down before Saturday night.

“Just gotta try to go out there and do what you're used to doing,” LaVine said. “Obviously I'm going to be anxious like I said. Adrenaline is gonna be rushing, crowd is gonna be into it. Team is gonna be loving it. It's gonna be a good feeling, You just gotta learn how to calm that and get back to playing the game you love.”

Paxson said LaVine will be under the 20-minute restriction from Saturday until the All-Star break and that LaVine will not play in the second half of the lone back-to-back the Bulls have between now and then.

In a bit of secondary irony, the front end of that set is against the Minnesota Timberwolves, where Jimmy Butler will make his return to Chicago on Feb. 9. LaVine won’t play the next night, a home game against the Washington Wizards.

“The idea will be, as we go week to week, considering no setbacks and he's doing well, we’ll marginally ramp up his minutes as each week goes by and see how he’s doing,” Paxson said. “Our mindset is this is still part of the rehab for Zach. He needs to play. No matter what you do in practice, he needs those game minutes. So we’re going to give him those game minutes now.”

LaVine initially believed he would be back in mid-December, then thought he could play around Christmas. Clearly the Bulls, be it prudence or a function of their unexpected winning that has vaulted them from the dungeon of the Eastern Conference, decided to keep him out a little while longer.

Considering this franchise’s recent history with that particular injury, the Bulls weren’t going to be party to any rushing back for any reason. But make no mistake, unleashing their prized player in the Butler trade on draft night gives them a jolt of excitement.

“First of all, you have to understand what he’s been through. He had a significant injury 11 months ago. And he’s worked really, really hard to get back to play,” Paxson said. “We’ve seen players go through this before. The commitment they make to get back is significant. Most people don’t see what they go through. He has really embraced it and took it on. I know he’s excited to play. I’m sure we’re going to have to rein him in with his enthusiasm. We’re looking forward to having him. He’s obviously a key component of the trade that we made. We’re happy that he’s back.”

LaVine doesn’t expect to be the same player immediately upon his debut, the one who averaged nearly 20 points a game last season as a third option in 47 games in Minnesota.

But he does have a stake in this, as a restricted free-agent-to-be this summer, to show he’s worth a max contract or whatever he’ll command on the open market.

“At the end of the day, this game is business. You’re judged on how you perform,” LaVine said. “If I go out there, like I said, the 20-minute restriction won’t be for the rest of the season, if I go out there and perform the way I should, the way the team knows I should perform, I’ll be OK. I think I put enough hard work to not be scared about anything. I’m very confident in my game and excited to get out there. I know what I can do.”

Observations from Bulls-Rockets: Bombs away, a shot of Bobby, LaVine update, Niko suitor?

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Observations from Bulls-Rockets: Bombs away, a shot of Bobby, LaVine update, Niko suitor?

Here are the observations from the Bulls' 116-107 loss to the Houston Rockets Monday night at the United Center:

Rockets Red Glare: Fred Hoiberg’s offense is heavy on the 3-point attempts and insistent on space, but Mike D’Antoni’s system is if you pressed the fast-forward button on Hoiberg’s—dizzying defenses with a hailstorm of triples and sending even the most sound schemes into chaos.

Which meant it wasn’t a good dance partner for the Bulls’ defensive woes, as illustrated by the first few minutes of Monday’s contest when the Rockets blitzed the Bulls 25-11 in the first seven minutes.

They looked shell-shocked and ill-prepared as the lead swelled to 21 minutes later.

“We were in a little bit of awe with them coming out and hitting shots,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we came out of the gates flat. It was awful early, but a lot of that was them hitting shots.”

Two things are clear with the Rockets: There’s gonna be plenty of space to operate, and if they stop hitting shots, you can find a way to get back into the game.

Each was on full display through the 48-minute period, as Trevor Ariza kept shaking loose in transition and the Bulls could not locate Eric Gordon behind the long line.

The Bulls were having recent issues against middle of the road offensive teams, then had to face Chris Paul playing maestro with his team in the midst of a bad streak. The only solace was that James Harden’s hamstring injury made him unavailable, but it was little solace.

The Rockets hit 20 triples against the Bulls, the best output against the Bulls but it wasn’t close to the Rockets’ season-high—they torched the Jazz for 23 triples in early November.

Paul and Gordon each scored 24 with nine assists, Ariza hit six triples for 18 points and Clint Capela was a monster for 15 points and 16 rebounds.

All wasn’t lost, however: The Bulls shook off the early start to make it a nearly even game by halftime, thanks to Bobby Portis. Like a shot of espresso, Portis injected the Bulls with life in the second quarter.

Without Nikola Mirotic in the lineup, Portis became a primary offensive option and he delivered in a 33-point second quarter for the Bulls. Yes, he flexed and preened but he produced in 33 minutes, scoring 22 points with four rebounds.

“He had great aggressiveness,” Hoiberg said. “We were a little stone-faced when they hit us with that haymaker.”

(Apparently Hoiberg has no problem using the boxing analogies again.)

It wasn’t just Portis though, as Kris Dunn found life after looking pretty nondescript early, and three Rockets tried their hands at Dunn when he started getting to the basket and doing his best Paul impersonation of getting to the midrange area.

He finished with a respectable stat line of 19 points, eight assists and four rebounds, but even he knew the time the Bulls spent being overwhelmed by the Rockets bit them in the long run.

“We kept giving ourselves chances to come back. At one point we took the lead and they hit two threes in a row,” Dunn said. “We kept knocking at the door and they just kept hitting two threes every time we got close.”

The Bulls did rebound and take a 64-62 lead in the third quarter on a Dunn jumper but it never got larger than 66-63. The Rockets absorbed the Bulls’ comeback and restored order to 81-71 with three minutes left in the third.

Speaking of haymakers: Gerald Green, ladies and gentlemen. He keeps doing things like this to the Bulls. Whether it’s a Game 3 in the First Round as a member of the Celtics or Monday where he came off the bench a few games after getting picked up by the Rockets, it’s a pretty cool thing to see.

He scored 22 off the bench, including four triples and some devastating dunks that would make Zach LaVine blush.

Speaking of LaVine: The Bulls were supposed to have an update but John Paxson will address the media Tuesday morning before practice. It’s tough to see him playing against the New York Knicks Wednesday for a debut but Saturday night in Chicago, against the Detroit Pistons—the team he tore his ACL against last season—would appear to be a prudent observation.

But then again, these are the Bulls.

Niko update: The trade season has been quiet so far but the Bulls are hoping to be part of a flurry of activity soon enough.

January 15th is a week away—the first day the Bulls are eligible to trade Nikola Mirotic, assuming he consents to a deal. Although Mirotic has helped the Bulls win games since his return from his incident with teammate Bobby Portis, both Mirotic and the Bulls appear to want the same thing.

A separation.

Mirotic has a no-trade clause due to his restricted free-agent status over the summer, which complicates things to a degree. And the Bulls want future assets over immediate help in return, as in a first-round draft pick.

So far, the market for Mirotic has been described as “tepid”, according to a league source. The Utah Jazz have engaged in discussions with the Bulls, but to this point, the Bulls don’t want to take on Alec Burks’ $11.5 million for 2018-19 without the Jazz attaching a draft pick.

The Jazz could offer a protected first-rounder, considering they’re on the outside of the playoff picture in the West. But talks have not progressed since the two sides making initial contact weeks ago.

Bulls meeting with Zach LaVine to discuss when he'll make his 2018 debut

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Bulls meeting with Zach LaVine to discuss when he'll make his 2018 debut

Zach LaVine is doing windmill dunks and going between-the-legs for throwdowns, according to a verified witness by the name of Kris Dunn.

But LaVine will not be making his debut Monday night against the Houston Rockets as LaVine, his representatives, the Bulls front office and team doctors will meet together later Monday afternoon to discuss his return date.

His representatives are in Chicago, and there should be an update around game time Monday. The Bulls will be in New York on Wednesday to play the Knicks, and then there’s two days off before a Saturday night game against the Detroit Pistons — the team he tore his ACL playing against last February.

If one had to guess, the start of that three-game homestand would be the best bet for a debut.

“That will all be discussed in a couple hours,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’ll try to figure out the best day to get him back in uniform for Zach, for the team. Hard part going into this stretch, we haven’t had much practice time with all the back to backs, playing seven games in 11 days. With Windy City having back to back as well. All of that will be discussed and then we’ll find the best day to get him back in uniform.”

Dunn is the one Bull who’s familiar with the pre-injury LaVine, as the two played together in Minnesota last season. Dunn is probably the one Bull who will have to make the biggest adjustment to playing with LaVine, as when LaVine’s assumed restrictions are lifted, the two will have to share space and the ball in the Bulls’ backcourt.

“I understand his game. I know his spots,” Dunn said. “If he gets the ball off the rim or somebody passes to him in transition, let him go. I’m going to find my way. And if I have the ball, he’s going to find his way. We know how to feed off each other. We know how to read each other. We’ve played with each other. It’s not a difficult thing for us.”

When asked how much conversation he’s had with LaVine about sharing the ball, Dunn deadpanned and replied: “Zero. The reason is because I played with Zach last year.”

The Bulls have gotten accustomed to playing without a go-to scorer at that position, so it will be an adjustment for the rest of the roster. Scoring hasn’t been a problem since the return of Nikola Mirotic, so sacrifices will come from somewhere to accommodate a guy who can score 20 in his sleep.

Before his injury last season, LaVine averaged 18.9 points in 47 games as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Ideally in Chicago, he’ll likely evolve into the first option, as the centerpiece to the Jimmy Butler deal last June.

“None of these guys have played with Zach besides me,” Dunn said. “In practice, it’s kind of hard to simulate to a game. It’s definitely going to be an adjustment, but I think it’s going to be a good one. Zach is not a selfish player. He takes the right shots. If he sees somebody open, he’s going to pass the ball. It’s all about playing the right way.”