Zach LaVine understands the value of availability as well as anyone. He routinely plays through the nicks and bumps that accrue throughout the NBA season without complaint.
But when the Bulls' guard returned a positive test for COVID-19 in mid-April, he found a wall he couldn't barrel through.
"Earlier in the season, it was easier for me to fight through an ankle injury. I had a Grade 2 ankle sprain. I could play through that," LaVine said following the team's Wednesday practice, held before jetting to Charlotte, N.C. for a Thursday date with the Hornets. "This (COVID-19) is something I couldn’t fight and try to play through. That's what kind of hurt me the most."
That ankle sprain hampered LaVine for a handful of contests at the end of March, but only officially held him out of one. His stay in the league's health and safety protocols, which began April 15, caused 11 absences, in which the Bulls went 4-7 at a crucial juncture. He's on track to return Thursday.
LaVine revealed that his coronavirus case was of the symptomatic variety, but other than a mild headache, not severely so.
"Watched a whole bunch of movies. Worked on my golf swing. What else did I do? Played video games. Got tired of playing video games. Played phone games with my fiancée," LaVine said of his daily routine in isolation, which mostly confined to the basement of his Chicago home. "She was being a nurse to me, delivering food up and down the stairs. I did everything to try to keep me from going insane."
His expected return comes with the Bulls' play-in hopes on life support. As of Wednesday, they trail the red-hot Wizards by four games for the No. 10 seed with seven games to play. Basketball Reference pegs them with a 0.5 percent chance of making a last-gasp push for the playoffs.
That dynamic, LaVine said, added to his quarantine frustration, which at one point culminated in a since-deleted tweet reading: "These protocols are for the BIRDS I’m good."
"It just felt like it was taking a really long time. I was out for almost four weeks. Some guys came back after 10 days or 12 days. I don’t want to put all the blame on the league because obviously I have to go through certain things, so I was just more frustrated that I couldn’t go out there and compete and help the team win," LaVine said. "We were anywhere from eighth to 10th [in the Eastern Conference standings] the whole season, and to see us slip in the standings has been tough."
Especially when, as LaVine later noted, all he could do was watch. For the extent of his protocol stay, his only contact with the team was limited to phone calls and texts.
After returning to the Bulls' gym over the weekend, getting a productive workout in Tuesday and participating in practice on Wednesday, LaVine said he is ready for his full complement of minutes when he returns. Barring an unforeseen setback, expect him to suit up for both of the Bulls' games in an upcoming back-to-back with the Hornets (Thursday on the road) and Boston Celtics (Friday at home).
"Obviously the games are stacked up against you but from what I’ve been telling guys you can’t worry about that. Let’s just go out there and take care of our job," LaVine said. "If we go out there and take care of the wins, let the pieces fall where they may. But you can’t dwell and depend on other teams. We’ve got to take care of our business. That’s why I’m coming back. I’m not somebody that’s going to sit here and try and be all hope is lost. I’m going to come here and try and do my job.’’
And before you ask, no, shutting down for the remainder of the regular season was never on the table for the uber-competitive LaVine.
"I’m not that type of guy," LaVine said. "If that conversation comes up, it won’t be coming from me."
In his mind, until the Bulls are mathematically eliminated, the fight is still on.
"This is the predicament that we put ourselves in. There’s nobody really but to blame but us. We have to finish out the season strong," LaVine said. "It’s unfortunate, but I’m not somebody to close the door on something that’s not officially over. I’m going to try to fight for everything that I have."