PHILADELPHIA — Maybe one day Zach LaVine will be more publicly forthcoming about the frustration he’s feeling trying to play through his injured left thumb.
Wednesday wasn’t that day.
“It’s going to be like this for a while,” the Chicago Bulls’ All-Star said. “I’m not going to take any excuses for it. It is what it is. And you play through it.”
LaVine’s numbers are fine since suffering what the Bulls are calling a sprain but involves a minor ligament tear that forces him to play with the thumb heavily taped. He’s averaging 26 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2.3 turnovers while shooting 45 percent in four games.
But unofficially, there are two to three times each game where LaVine either looks at his left thumb, expresses frustration or makes an adjustment that you’re not used to seeing from someone so adept at scoring with either hand.
“Just gotta figure out how to play through it. I’ll figure it out,” LaVine said. “The biggest thing is go out there and try not to think about it.”
As one of the team’s leaders and top talents, LaVine knows his games will be scrutinized more closely than most. And what he’s trying to play through is admirable.
But his closing rotational turn against the 76ers didn’t go as smoothly as his previous fourth quarters. Entering Wednesday, he had been averaging 6.6 points on 48.3 percent shooting (16-for-17 from the free-throw line) in the final quarter.
After checking in with 7 minutes, 15 seconds left and the Bulls down 87-85, LaVine missed all five shots, including two 3-pointers, with 2 turnovers. On several possessions, he dribbled into the teeth of the defense with few options.
Coach Billy Donovan, ever the protector, said this is actually a team-wide issue and one where chemistry needs to form. Donovan suggested shooters, particularly Nikola Vučević, need to fan out to make LaVine’s drives more impactful.
“He wasn’t downhill as much,” Donovan said of LaVine. “We need to know that he’s going to keep a level of aggressiveness and play downhill. I think the one thing we have to do — and it speaks to DeMar (DeRozan) and Alex (Caruso) and even Ayo (Dosunmu) — when that ball is being driven, generally it’s (find) the 5-man (center). We’ve got a great 5-man that can shoot (Vučević). We’ve got to find ways to get him more shots from back there in those situations.
“Sometimes it’s hard. You’re going. Help comes and you have to make that split-second read. I think as these guys learn how to play with each other, that’s some of it. How defenses guard Zach, DeMar and Lonzo (Ball) and Alex, and even Ayo when he’s driving, where help is coming from. Just having an idea and a sense of where Vooch is at so we can generate more 3s. If we can do more of that, it then stretches the defense a little bit and you take away bigs’ rim protection and it allows us to play downhill a little more.”
Vučević scored just 4 points on seven shot attempts. LaVine finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist and 5 turnovers.
Asked what kind of maintenance he does postgame on the injury, LaVine merely — and tersely — said: “Put some ice on it and wait for it to heal.”
That day can’t come soon enough for LaVine and the Bulls.