Bulls better off without Zach LaVine? Not even close, his coach says

The Bulls are 2-1 since LaVine went into the league’s health and safety protocol, and they won two straight with a defense-first approach. But coach Billy Donovan said the Bulls are not better without LaVine, no matter how the last two games looked.

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The Bulls are 2-1 since Zach LaVine went into the league’s health and safety protocol.

The Bulls are 2-1 since Zach LaVine went into the league’s health and safety protocol.

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The message that came out of last week’s team meeting was nothing new.

It has been the same message that has been preached since Day 1 of training camp but for some reason hadn’t gained a foothold.

Either with the group of players who was here before executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas brought in five new players on March 25, or with the post-deadline group the Bulls have now.

What matters to guard Garrett Temple is that it’s being heard now.

Over the last two games, the veteran has watched his teammates dive for 50-50 balls, play with urgency, understand what’s at stake, and guard as good as they’ve guarded all season long.

“That’s what happens in the NBA when you have a young team, a new staff,’’ Temple said, when asked why it took so long for this group to accept doing the little things necessary to win. “It doesn’t happen overnight. Hopefully, those [messages] are finally seeping in. Obviously, we’re in a fight for our life. We want to continue to strive and get to the playoffs if we can. We have to win games to do that. Hopefully, guys are understanding how important these games are. Every detail, every play matters. Guys are playing really hard. And I like that.’’

There aren’t many in the current traveling party who aren’t embracing the mentality finally being shown.

Holding the Cavaliers and Celtics to 96 points in back-to-back games is a small sample size, but with just 15 regular-season games left, it’s the only sample they really have to try to build on.

It will get interesting, however, when Zach LaVine is ready to return.

The Bulls had their team meeting after an embarrassing loss to Orlando and have played three games since Zach LaVine went into the league’s healthy and safety protocol, first losing to Memphis before putting together their best back-to-back defensive efforts of the year.

To a man, no one inside the organization feels like the roster is better without LaVine. It’s not. The NBA is still score first, ask questions later, and LaVine is one of the elite players at carrying out that art form.

“I would not sit there and say with our current team, if we take [LaVine] off our current team that we’re a better team without him,’’ coach Billy Donovan said Tuesday. “I wouldn’t agree with that. I do think that because of maybe the last two games defensively, what the numbers look like and because Zach’s not here, it may look like, ‘OK, that’s the case.’ But I don’t necessarily agree with that at all.’’

With LaVine possibly out for up to five more games, however, what if the winning with a defensive-first mentality continues? Would LaVine, who has improved that part of his game but still needs to improve, see the lesson that’s being taught in his absence?

Donovan not only feels that it won’t be an issue, but also that it hasn’t been part of his mentality throughout the year.

“I think he’s really searching for ways that he can help us win and win at a higher level,’’ Donovan said. “He’s done a lot of things to carry us in a lot of different ways. And that load that he’s carrying, as someone that’s trying to get into that next level of player, it’s a learning curve for him. I’ll be totally honest with you — there is a learning curve. But I don’t see him being the kind of guy that says, ‘You know what? I’m a scorer. That dirty work is for somebody else, I’m not doing that.’ That’s never been his disposition or his attitude.’’

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