John Paxson

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.”

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

krisdunnbulls.png
USA TODAY

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

The biggest difference in Kris Dunn has been the overwhelming confidence he’s played with, helping spur this new brand of Bulls basketball.

The biggest attribute Kyrie Irving has in his bag is the overwhelming ability to embarrass his opponent with his trick bag of dribble moves, quickness and tricky shots around the rim.

Safe to say, Dunn’s newfound confidence will be tested against the Celtics—one can surmise it’ll either be validated as real or doubted as some form of anomaly. Irving missed the Dec. 11 matchup with the Bulls due to injury but he’s been on a tear in the six games since.

Irving is averaging 30.2 points and 5.3 assists on 48 percent shooting and 41 percent from 3-point range. In the last eight games Dunn’s numbers represent the best sample size of his career, with 15.8 points, 8.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds on 46 percent shooting.

Dunn doesn’t deny looking forward to the matchup.

“For sure. He’s one of the best point guards in the league,” Dunn said after the Bulls beat Orlando earlier this week. “I’m a competitor, I want to compete against all the best guards.”

While the point guard position is as deep as it’s ever been in recent memory, Dunn hasn’t had to go against the top players at his position in this streak. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is a fringe All-Star who gave the Bulls big time problems last month, scoring 47 points in a close Bulls win.

But Dunn helped hold Walker to just 5-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-10 from 3 in the streak-starting Bulls' win on Dec. 8.

Since then it’s been a who’s who of “who” opposing Dunn, which makes the matchup with Irving in Boston so interesting.

“It’s a great opportunity for Kris to see one of the best players in the game right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So again (he’s) got to go out and play solid basketball, can’t go out and make it a personal one on one matchup, Kyrie Irving you’re going to have to have full team awareness, you are not going to stop him one in one; for Kris continue to go out, grow and get better but it’s a great opportunity and challenge for Kris tonight.”

Irving can score 30 in his sleep, and even a good defender like Dunn can only provide so much of a defensive challenge. One key will be watching Dunn’s body language if Irving gets it going early—the boisterous and emotional Dunn hasn’t had to tone it down during this streak so if he carries that defeated look it may not bode well for the long run.

“He’s a completely different basketball player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s confident, he’s got a swagger to him; he’s getting into the paint and making plays; he’s shooting his three at a high clip, the best of his career, so he’s doing a lot of things well. The biggest thing we always talk about with Kris is consistency in everything he s doing, offensively, defensively, and he’s again continuing to grow and get better and he still has a very high ceiling.”

It’s easy for Hoiberg to say it isn’t personal, and Dunn isn’t going to make it personal but to put up numbers or to have a positive effect on winning against a player of Irving’s caliber is what coaches want their players to have.

“Always. When you go against the best guards, you have to step your game up to a whole nother level,” Dunn said. “You know they’re gonna go out there and compete. You gotta go out there and battle against them.”

He’ll see Washington’s John Wall, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in a four-day stretch starting Dec. 31, point men who can embarrass in different ways.

This stretch hasn’t yet put Dunn on the radar for those guys, but he’s desperate for a measure of respect.

“It’s all about the respect thing. That’s what I’m trying to play with,” Dunn said. “I still have to put a lot more work in. This NBA, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of good guards out there. I have to keep working each and every day.”

Nikola Mirotic making Bulls click by playing with freedom, emotion

mirotic.jpg
USA TODAY

Nikola Mirotic making Bulls click by playing with freedom, emotion

Somewhere when Nikola Mirotic was sitting, recovering from a concussion and broken bones in his face from the hands of a teammate, he had time to think about what his basketball life would look like when he returned.

The overthinker vowed to make the game simple for himself, to play freely and to get out of his own head. The player who’d often sit and stew at his locker after games going over mistakes he’d later repeat anyways hasn’t reappeared this season, not yet.

The freedom is obvious. The emotion is unexpected. The wins, especially the latest triumph, have been satisfying.

“It can look very bad in the beginning but at the end of the day…not saying it’s good but just trying to be positive and out there making my life simple in the game,” Mirotic said. “Enjoying the basketball. That’s my goal.”

Mirotic helped the Bulls pull a sixth consecutive win out of their keister in a 117-115 decision over the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center. Mirotic heard fans chanting his name in the final minute, when he put his stamp on the game—and essentially, delivered a surprising knockout punch considering the Bulls trailed by nine with 5:40 remaining.

“I told them in the huddle, our body language sucked,” a suddenly candid Fred Hoiberg said. “It was like we were down 20 and it was like a two-possession game. So, our guys went out there and rallied.”

Mirotic had already dazzled the hometown faithful by putting Dario Saric on skates with a stepback triple in the first half, but he saved the best of his 22-point, 10-rebound night after the half, putting up 15 and seven in the final 24 minutes.

Lauri Markkanen hit a triple, followed by Mirotic blocking a layup from Saric. Moments later, the ball made its way to the uber-confident Kris Dunn who tied the game with a triple and sent the United Center into delirium.

Yes, that was Mirotic battling three 76ers for loose balls, sliding over in the attempt to take charges on defense. That was Mirotic motioning to the crowd to get loud, washing in the love hardly anybody could’ve foreseen a month ago.

Hoiberg said Mirotic was a better defensive player than he was given credit for, but because he was inconsistent in what he was advertised to be his first few years it fell under the radar.

“He understands the game plan, he knows when a mismatch is going on in the post and when to come get the ball out of somebody’s hands,” Hoiberg said. “I talk about this a lot, he just does the little things on the defensive end that go unnoticed.”

There’s been no mention of rescinding the request to be traded, so if this is temporary it can benefit all parties in the meantime—even if his motivation for being so locked-in is to hit the reset button in another zip code.

Make no mistake, the Bulls were on the verge of a momentary breakthrough with their 10-game losing streak—or a breakdown with so many close losses, depending on how you look at it. But Mirotic individually having something to prove, and this team needing a boost from somebody, anybody, made this a marriage of convenience that’s beneficial for all sides.

Dunn’s confidence is worlds better than the player we saw a month ago. Portis has been a revelation of sorts after his eight-game suspension. David Nwaba is a front office gem, a culture guy who plays embarrassingly hard.

Mirotic didn’t make those things so, but in this fleeting period he’s what makes this all click.

“It’s my moment, the team’s moment,” Mirotic said. “I’m very proud, especially the team finding a way to win again. We were struggling before I came and didn’t enjoy basketball.”

It’s hard to enjoy the game when you’re getting your brains beat in one night followed by not being good or experienced enough to win games the following night. When Mirotic returned, he provided just enough talent and had more experience than 90 percent of the roster.

He needed them to give him an opportunity to put the drama behind everyone in the moment. They needed him, simply, to make shots, and the success is allowing him fun he hasn’t had in years.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed playing basketball like this,” Mirotic said. “Especially coming from the tough moment for me was just huge just enjoying the game. Sharing the ball and finding the right guy in the right position.”

Six wins later, Mirotic is scoring 20 a night with 7.3 rebounds on 52 percent shooting and 50 from three. He finally admitted the incident with Bobby Portis woke him up a bit—even if one could say he sleepwalked through most of his time here.

“Both. I need it (emotion). I need that out there,” Mirotic said. “At the end of the day, we’re all emotional. Last season you probably didn’t see me having emotion in the game. When you’re winning everything gets easier.”

Even before the incident, things seemed to line up for a player like Mirotic. We’ve seen this before, with other players on other teams. Talented guy underachieves, then entering a contract year puts it together—be it for a temporary mirage or something substantial.

The long standoff Mirotic had with the Bulls this summer had him in the weight room instead of on the Spanish national team. And when Portis’ punch put him out for an extended period of time, it was the longest Mirotic had gone without meaningful basketball competition.

In that time, he seemed to discover the simplicity that made “March Niko” so magical—and maddening— in his first few years.

“When I’m out there, I’m just trying to make it simple. It’s true I’m playing with a lot of confidence,” Mirotic said. “It’s been a long time, I didn’t have fun like now. Playing basketball. I tell myself, Niko, try to do your work, have fun and try to put all the work you did this summer into the game. It’s all I’ve been trying.”

The Bulls have undergone a temporary transformation and Mirotic seems to have won over teammates who didn’t have much experience with him before training camp.

“We’ve been saying it—Niko’s back,” Dunn said. “He’s been playing unbelievable basketball. He’s a very good leader, trusting to the young group. We’re very appreciative to have him back.”

It’s been a sight to see, both from the outside and even from Mirotic, who didn’t always have great support from his teammates through the years.

“It’s huge, seeing all those guys from the bench jumping and having fun,” Mirotic said. “It was just not me that wasn’t having fun. Before I came back, everybody had their heads down. But we were always practicing well. Now we’re playing with different energy. We’re coming after (the other team). That makes a huge difference."