Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Mismatched pieces: Kris Dunn made his return after a near-month absence from a concussion he suffered against Golden State, and immediately you could see the small dividends.

On the first possession, he pulled up for a midrange jumper, showing no ill effects from the injury. He also drove to the basket and played relatively aggressive, which is a hallmark to his effectiveness.

He didn’t stand out statistically but the Bulls’ pace was evident in his 20 minutes, as he totaled eight points and three assists.

What will be critical over the final 25 games after the All-Star break is the on-floor chemistry between Dunn and Zach LaVine.

LaVine was coming off one of his best stretches as a pro, averaging 25.3 points and six rebounds over his last four games. The production regressed a bit, as the Raptors showed why they’re one of the top 10 teams on both ends of the floor—particularly defensively as the driving lanes weren’t plentiful aside from a couple athletic takes to the rim.

He only finished with seven points in 27 minutes, but 14 games into his season, anomalies are expected.

If this game were closer, one of the questions would be around how the Bulls would navigate late-game execution between Dunn and LaVine. LaVine was aggressive late in the wins against the Timberwolves and Magic, while Fred Hoiberg termed Dunn the Bulls’ “closer” when they went on their remarkable run after starting 3-20.

Hoiiberg didn’t want to truly entertain the “who’s the man” question before the game because…well, these two have only played four games together this season.

Last year there wasn’t much time to play together because Dunn didn’t play much and LaVine was hurt by midseason.

“You definitely have to find the chemistry out there,” Dunn said. “When you find the chemistry and the right groove and everybody knows each other, things are a lot easier. It’s only been four games. It’ll take time. Hopefully we get it right away in the second half.”

If there’s an issue of actual substance for the last third of the season, it’s probably not figuring out the Cam Payne conundrum that will get people’s juices going headed into 2018-19, it’ll be figuring out how the backcourt of the future performs together.

“Kris has been good. I have chemistry with him from our days in Minnesota,” LaVine said. “For all of us getting to know each other, still. Me, him, Lauri, getting to know each other and meshing. We weren’t as competitive as we should’ve been, and aggressive. We gotta get better with that.”

Speaking of backcourts: The backcourt of the present, Toronto’s All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, didn’t have to play like their All-Star selves for the Raptors to cruise to an easy win.

Lowry has continued his all-around play with 20 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, taking just 10 shots in his 27 minutes while hitting four triples. DeRozan, who had a field day against the Bulls in his earlier visit to the United Center with 35 points, only went 3-for-11 in 28 minutes for seven points and eight assists.

But that’s the beauty of these Raptors, who’ve continued to build around their backcourt and evolved into one of the league’s most versatile and deepest teams as they have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 41-16.

Their bench combined for 56 points and hammered the Bulls in the paint for 60 points, shooting 52 percent from the field and taking a 26-point lead. They have length and athleticism along with youth and energy—in most other years, they could be a real threat to qualify for the NBA Finals.

Too bad the Cleveland Cavaliers exist and more specifically, LeBron James. The Cavs beefed up at the deadline and now look like the favorites to get back to the Finals—and they’ll likely have to get through the Raptors to get there.

“Dwane Casey has done an unbelievable job with that team,” Hoiberg said. “Absolutely phenomenal. And that team is playing with so much confidence and swagger.”

Effort: It’s been awhile since the Bulls’ effort could truly come into question. Their execution, talent level and decision-making has been what held them back in most of their losses in the last month or so.

With 48 minutes between them and a much-needed All-Star break, the Bulls slept through their alarm clock and kept hitting the snooze button.

After taking a six-point lead in the first quarter, they were outscored by 30 in the last three.

“It reminded me of an earlier stretch in the season when adversity hit us and we shut down, and that can’t happen,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to keep playing, we’ve got to keep battling, which we’ve done a very good job of for the most part this season.”

Hoiberg even picked up his second technical of the season, being so frustrated with the officiating and his team’s energy level. Shooting just four of 24 from three tends to gray Hoiberg’s hair a little quicker than most nights.

LaVine said, “we sucked”, which put Hoiberg’s sentiments much more succinctly.

“I think it got the best of us,” Dunn said. “Shots just weren’t falling and when it doesn’t fall then adversity hits and when it does, we just got to be able to fight through it. They were comfortable the whole game.

Leading: Dunn’s words sounded just like Hoiberg’s, and if you take the position that the leader of the team and coach need to be on the same accord, it shouldn’t be surprising Dunn plans to take a more vocal role for the final 25 games.

He purposely didn’t want to assert himself so strongly to start the year, he said. It could’ve been in part because his early play wouldn’t have garnered the currency to be a leader (remember the late behind-the-back pass in Phoenix), but since early December, he’s been the catalyst.

“I stepped back because we had so many veterans and other players to be the leaders. I just went out there to do it with action,” Dunn said.

In these 11 games he’s been out, Dunn’s presence and qualities haven’t been duplicated. They’ve played hard but have missed his passion and confidence that borders on arrogance (remember the yelling to the crowd as he closed a win against the Utah Jazz in December), but it’s been necessary.

Averaging 15 points, eight assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals in his last 21 games gives him the type of currency in the locker room to lead. He deferred to Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Quincy Pondexter.

Clearly it’s been part of a master plan, a plan one can say he executed to near-perfection.

“Now I want to start trying to be a vocal leader, carrying to the second half and the summer and next season, starting the year quicker.”

Already looking to next year is probably music to most fans’ ears.

But there’s 100 quarters left to play.

The countdown is on.

Nikola Mirotic day after trade craziness: 'We don't have to rush to make a decision'

Nikola Mirotic day after trade craziness: 'We don't have to rush to make a decision'

PORTLAND, Ore. — There he was, Nikola Mirotic going through morning shootaround with his teammates at Portland’s Moda Center as if there wasn’t a storm of confusion swirling around.

Mirotic planned to play against the Trail Blazers unless something more develops, but from the Bulls’ standpoint, they’ve done their part in accommodating Mirotic. Which is why it wasn't a surprise when the Bulls and Mirotic decided to make Mirotic inactive until they can find a trade partner — with the Feb. 8 deadline fast approaching.

There’s no point in risking an injury or anything catastrophic happening, so at least that seems to be one thing the Bulls and Mirotic agreed upon, before getting to the complicated part of this situation. He didn't attend the game, staying back at the team hotel.

After admitting he got pulled off the floor before Tuesday’s practice in anticipation of a trade, he wouldn’t admit what made him hit the pause button on a move that could send him to New Orleans and end this weird saga of a season.

“It was an option with New Orleans,” Mirotic said. “That’s all I heard. I said, ‘OK, you guys can think and see what’s the best for me.’ We’re going to make a decision, but we don’t have to rush to make a decision. This happened yesterday. It’s not even 24 hours. It’s nothing to do that fast.”

But when he stepped off the floor, his first thought was: “‘It’s happening. It’s happening. It could happen.’”

A year that started with getting punched by Bobby Portis two days before the season opener, followed by a trade demand and unexpected resurgence had finally reached the one-yard line. But getting it into the end zone has proved to be a difficult proposition.

“That’s the only thing that popped into my head. I said, ‘OK, be calm. Wait. Do what they told you to do. Step off the court.’ I was doing some calls to my agent and my family. That’s all. The thing I want is the best for me and my future in the NBA. And I’m sure the Bulls are doing what’s the best for them too.”

It didn’t because he’s not ready — yet. It doesn’t sound like he’s said "no," but more weighing his options. He doesn’t want to forfeit the $12.5 million he’s due to make next season on a team option, as the Pelicans have a king’s ransom tied up in Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and want to keep DeMarcus Cousins this offseason — which could require a $200 million long-term commitment.

There’s no guarantee the Bulls will pick up his option if he stays with the team through the year, either.

Whether it’s believing his agents and the Bulls can find another team that can check all the criteria for all parties or merely himself, he’s not sure — which is why he was drenched in sweat before the team came in for morning shootaround as he got an early workout in with teammates Quincy Pondexter and G-League callup Antonio Blakeney.

“Yeah, we had a conversation,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “After talking to John (Paxson) and Gar (Forman), we determined that the best thing to do was for Niko to not practice and to talk to his representation and go from there. Obviously, Niko's on this trip, and it's my job to try to put our team in a position to compete, in a position to win, and we'll continue to do that. Niko will play tonight, he'll be in the same role coming off the bench.”

Clearly that changed later when Hoiberg talked to the Bulls’ front office, and wouldn’t elaborate too much before the Bulls’ 124-108 loss to the Blazers. There wasn’t much he could say; the parameters are clear.

Mirotic wouldn’t reveal what went through his mind during the time he left the practice facility and when he met the team at the plane before going to Portland.

“Obviously without Cousins, it’s not a good situation for them. I don’t know. I don’t need to think about New Orleans now,” Mirotic said. “Until the last day or minute I’m wearing the Bulls jersey, I’m thinking about the Bulls. It’s something I can not control.”

But he knows his no-trade clause by virtue of his restricted free agency status from last summer means he holds some cards, and maybe even the trump card.

He wants a team to pick up his option for next season and according to sources there’s only one team he doesn’t want to play for. The Pelicans were not that team.

The Bulls would love to get a first-round pick from the Pelicans and will take on the contract of former Bull Omer Asik to do it. Asik has one full year left for $11 million in 2018-19 and has a $3 million buyout for 2019-20.

It seemed to check all the boxes except for on Mirotic’s end — but he wanted to deflect the decision to his agent. He wouldn’t say there was some miscommunication between his wishes and the Bulls considering a deal was reached but not consummated.

“I don't know. I really don't know that,” Mirotic said. “Once again, my representation, you need to talk to them. I don't know what's going on so far. I told them, if there's some news, talk to me, and nobody talked to me this morning. There's nothing there.”

So in the meantime, as he’s done all year, he’ll play and everyone else will sit around and wonder what the next move will be.

“The good thing, I have the option but I'm making it together with my team,” Mirotic said. “They've been fighting for me all this year. We're gonna do what's best for the team, for me. We're not sure yet, what we're gonna do.

“Until then, let's play basketball.”

Except, he won’t.