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Playing follow the leader, Bulls stay alive for final play-in spot

Zach LaVine might not deliver this team to the postseason, but at least one teammate feels he has emerged as a leader, not only for this year but beyond.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine, right, drives to the basket against Raptors center Khem Birch, left, and guard Jalen Harris during the first half of Thursday’s game.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine, right, drives to the basket against Raptors center Khem Birch, left, and guard Jalen Harris during the first half of Thursday’s game.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Guard Zach LaVine has always said the right things.

You can credit his upbringing or his makeup, but he seldom commits verbal missteps.

This season, however, he’s finally doing the right things.

There are actions backing up the words. That’s why he has emerged as a true leader this year and hopefully beyond.

The latest evidence came Thursday at the United Center. The Bulls were facing a completely undermanned Raptors squad in a must-win situation, and LaVine wasn’t looking to score 40, but he was looking to play a complete game.

Thanks to LaVine’s efficient 24 points and solid defense, the Bulls beat the Raptors 114-102 to stay alive for the last play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with two games left.

The problem is that those two games might not mean a thing.

The Bulls (30-40) are off until Saturday afternoon, and the Wizards can wrap it up with a victory on Friday against the Cavaliers.

Obviously, it would be a massive gut punch for LaVine & Co. if that happens, especially after how much they talked about wanting to be a playoff team this season.

But the likely failure won’t diminish the leadership role LaVine established this season. It’s a far cry from last season, when he was passed over as a captain in a team vote.

“I think this year was definitely a growth year for Zach from the simple fact that he was more vocal than anything; he always voiced his opinion,’’ veteran forward Thad Young said. “He helped guys out through the course of games; he went out there and got after it defensively. Offensively, we all know what he can do.

‘‘He led by example every day. This year was really a big period of growth for him, and I think he can lead this franchise and take this franchise to the next level.’’

LaVine missed 11 games after testing positive for the coronavirus April 15. The Bulls went from holding a play-in spot when he went down to losing it in his absence.

He has played the last five games, and the Bulls are 4-1.

Young has been impressed by LaVine’s commitment to being a more consistent two-way player, then by his return from a long layoff with that same mentality on both ends of the floor.

“I think that was one of the most important parts, the most important keys,’’ Young said.

“Me, I’ve been staying on him all season long. Billy [Donovan] and the coaches have been staying on him all season long and telling him that’s the next level of growth for him.

‘‘He has to be a two-way guy. He can’t just play one side of the basketball because it’s not going to help you win games. I think he’s taken on that challenge.’’

And that’s not the only challenge, either.

By going 3-for-7 from three-point range, LaVine became the first Bull to make 200 threes in a season.

It’s just another sign of his evolution.

“Winning is important to him,’’ Donovan said. “He’s figuring out the mental side of what goes into that.’’