This isn’t officially the end. But you can see it from here.
With the Bulls’ 108-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks and the red-hot Washington Wizards winning again, the Bulls are three games out of the play-in picture with nine games to play.
They have an unrelenting schedule, which calls for them to finish a back-to-back Saturday after arriving in Atlanta after 3 a.m. They played Friday night without Lauri Markkanen, a late scratch for an illness that coach Billy Donovan wouldn’t confirm or deny was related to the team, according to a source, getting their second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.
And most importantly, the Bulls remain without Zach LaVine, who took a small step forward Friday but remains in the league’s health and safety protocols. In a surprise, LaVine, who will miss his 10th game Saturday, sat on the bench in street clothes and a mask.
That marked LaVine’s first time around teammates since he first entered the league’s health and safety protocols on April 15.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t even know he was cleared to be around our team,” Donovan said. “Most of my talks with medical through their contact with the league has been really more predicated on: ‘When can he come back to practice? When can he come back to play?’ I think we’ll have a lot more clarity on that maybe on Monday when we get back from this trip.”
The question now becomes: Should the Bulls shut down LaVine?
The fact that he has cleared quarantine but hasn’t been cleared for activity suggests he hasn’t finished the cardiac screening that is part of the league’s return-to-play protocols following a positive test for COVID-19. After returning consecutive negative tests for the virus, cardiac screening is the final step before individual workouts, which precede being cleared for joining team practices.
All of these procedures and protocols were detailed in a memo distributed to teams before the season. Teams don’t have to divulge the testing status of players unless the players OK it, which LaVine hasn’t done to this point.
“With Zach’s situation, it’s all sensitive,” Donovan said. “And I prefer the players to respond and handle that more so than me speaking for them.”
The Wizards also finish a back-to-back set of games Saturday in Dallas. So, depending on the outcomes, the Bulls either will be two, three or four games out of the play-in picture with eight to play. They do own the tiebreaker over the Wizards, but also face a tougher schedule.
Shutting down LaVine, particularly if the Bulls close the gap to two games following Saturday’s action, would go against every fiber of his competitive being. But it could improve their lottery odds for a first-round pick that is headed to the Magic as part of the trade for Nikola Vučević unless it lands in the top four.
LaVine is an avid workout fiend and prides himself on staying in shape, but even he will need ramp-up time to return. And that’s even after he receives clearance to exit the health and safety protocols.
“It was nice to see him. Obviously, he’s a huge part of what we do and we miss him a lot on the court,” Vučević said. “He was trying to keep us positive and keep pushing and keep playing and do the best we can. Even throughout the game, he was talking. It’s just great when you get a guy like that back around the team.
“Hopefully, soon enough he’ll be able to be back on the court as well.”
Will it be worth it?