Bulls guard Zach LaVine ready for gold rush after safety-protocol scare

With LaVine out of the health and safety protocols and back with Team USA in time for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, his focus is now on winning a gold medal.

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Pinch-me moments are few and far between for Zach LaVine these days.

Then came participating in the opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics on Friday in Tokyo.

“Really powerful just being around all the athletes from all the other countries and all the different sports,’’ LaVine said Saturday via Zoom. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was a giant event with a lot of history, and I just tried to soak it all in. A lot of fun. Long day, though, I can tell you that.’’

The Bulls guard knows “long days.’’ He has had his share of them lately. LaVine missed 11 games in April when he tested positive for the coronavirus and was put in the NBA’s health and safety protocol. He went back in the protocol for Team USA last week and could have missed the Olympics.

“I was a little shocked,’’ LaVine said of his latest experience. “I didn’t think I could get [the virus]. Obviously, I didn’t. I’m going to have to be careful with everybody, including the team and everybody coming over here. So it made sense. I pretty much had to do my time, jump through a couple hoops to get here.’’

Those hoops included quarantine, a series of negative tests while the rest of the team flew to Tokyo and then finally being cleared and jumping on a flight a few days later.

LaVine was in the protocol this time because of contact tracing.

“I didn’t want to put anyone in harm, I didn’t want to be put in harm, so we just had to make sure everything was OK before I got here,’’ LaVine said.

What matters to him now is the task at hand.

LaVine and Team USA begin pool play Sunday against France, which beat the U.S. in the 2019 FIBA World Cup quarterfinals.

“We’ve been preparing for France for two years,’’ Team USA coach Gregg Popovich said earlier in the week.

Popovich would know about that loss. He was Team USA’s coach.

“I think about it every day,’’ he said.

Popovich has his players thinking about it, too.

“We know how good they are, but we also know how good we are,’’ LaVine said. “We went over the film and we understand what they do, but I think we’re more focused on what we do because if we do what we do good, I don’t think there’s any team out here that’s going to come close to us. So as long as we go out there and execute, be ourselves, be Team USA, I think we’ll be all right.’’

LaVine moved into the starting lineup when Bradley Beal had to leave the team because of the health and safety protocol. LaVine said he has kept the same mindset, starter or not.

“Whatever I’ve got to get done, do it,’’ LaVine said. “We’re all not playing our regular starter minutes. I may come off the bench some games, I might start some games. But I’m here to bring energy. Obviously, when I need to score, put the ball in the hoop, I can do that. But try and bring a lot of energy and change the pace of the game. Pick up guys [defensively], be a menace out there.’’

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