CHICAGO (AP) – Zach LaVine has an Olympic gold medal, All-Star selections over the past two years and a pair of slam dunk championships.
When it comes to appearances after the season, his resume has an obvious omission. And with the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, that is about to change.
“It’s time,” he said, laughing.
LaVine finally gets a chance to play in the playoffs with the Bulls to face Giannis Antetokounmpo and defending NBA champion Bucks. Their first round series opens in Milwaukee on Sunday.
Chicago finished in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 46-36 for its first victory record since the 2015-16 team won 42-40. The Bulls reached the playoffs for the first time since a knockout in the first round of Boston in 2017. And they ended a series of four consecutive losing seasons.
They also endured a COVID-19 outburst along the way and a rash of injuries, including a sore left knee that left LaVine in and out of the lineup the past few months. But they do get on a 7-15 roller coaster, a sour end to a groundbreaking regular season.
Still, this is a big step for the Bulls – and LaVine. In his first seven seasons with Minnesota and Chicago, he never played on a team that won more than 31 games. But when the front office led by Arturas Karnisovas surrounded him with a competitive list, that changed in his eighth year.
The arrival of All-Star DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso last summer, along with Nikola Vucevic from a pre-deadline trade last year, changed the Bulls’ direction in a dramatic way.
That led to LaVine playing on a winning team for the first time since its lone season at UCLA. The Bruins won 28-9 in 2013-14 under Steve Alford and lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to a Florida team coached by Billy Donovan. Now, with Donovan in his second season in Chicago, they are on the same page.
“Everyone has to play the cards they’ve been dealt,” LaVine said. “It just took me a little longer than anyone else. I did not go out and go to another team.”
LaVine, who came to Chicago in the 2017 hit-day deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, had a $ 80 million four-year deal from Sacramento that was matched by the Bulls in July 2018. With his contract expiring, he reckons to land a giant deal in the low season.
But there are more immediate problems at hand.
The closest LaVine has come on the field in the playoffs so far was as a spectator. He has participated in a handful of postseason matches, including some in the 2016 and 2017 finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I think it’s going to be extremely intense, especially in Milwaukee, who have to play the defending champions at (their) home ground, match 1,” he said.
LaVine won a gold medal for the United States at the Olympics last summer. He followed that up by making his second All-Star team in a row.
Although he averaged 24.4 points, LaVine was limited to 67 games. And he admitted that he probably will not be completely healthy again this season.
LaVine has used the time since he last played on April 8, to get as close to 100% as he can, attend training sessions and get treatment in his downtime.
“It gets better with rest,” he said of his nagging knee injury. “Of course, the more throbbing and impact you put on it, it tends to get a little more tired, a little more sore. But it’s good right now. It feels good.”
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