Bulls guard Zach LaVine makes much-needed early return

LaVine was expected to miss the three-game trip, but he came back earlier. It wasn’t vintage LaVine in the victory against the Thunder, but it was good enough.

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“I just didn’t want to wait any longer,” the Bulls’ Zach LaVine said of returning earlier than expected. “About as healthy as my knee is going to get.”

“I just didn’t want to wait any longer,” the Bulls’ Zach LaVine said of returning earlier than expected. “About as healthy as my knee is going to get.”

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It wasn’t exactly Zach LaVine, All-Star.

It was more like Zach LaVine, good enough.

The Bulls guard finished with 23 points, but did it on 6-for-19 shooting from the field, including 3-for-10 from three-point range, Monday night in Oklahoma City. He had the worst plus/minus of the starting group with a minus-4.

But he also totaled seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals.

LaVine’s performance was more evidence of his growth and understanding of making winning basketball plays that don’t involve him playing the role of leading scorer.

LaVine hadn’t played since Jan. 14 against the Warriors, when he left early in the game with soreness in his left knee. Yes, the same knee that betrayed him back in 2017, when he had to have surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament.

Before the weekend, LaVine was expected to miss the entire three-game road trip, and maybe make his return Wednesday, with the Bulls hosting the Raptors at the United Center. Watching his teammates the first two games in Milwaukee and Orlando, however, didn’t sit well with him.

“I just didn’t want to wait any longer,’’ LaVine said. “About as healthy as my knee is going to get. Obviously, nothing structurally wrong. I got tired of watching the games. I decided I’m going to come out here and do what I can to help us win.

“Sucks sitting at home not being able to help and tried to come back as quick as I could. I try to play through a lot. Playing through it because it’s a big-time season for all of us.’’

While there was nothing structurally wrong with LaVine’s knee this time, he did admit that he was dealing with swelling and a bone bruise for about a month before pulling down a rebound against the Warriors and feeling discomfort at a higher level.

“When I went up and grabbed that rebound, it just didn’t feel right when I landed,’’ LaVine said. “Luckily, it was nothing structural. But I don’t like messing around with knee injuries, especially on my left side. Just gave it some time to rest. I didn’t want to keep playing through it because obviously something bad could happen if you keep playing with that.’’

Flying to Oklahoma City with forward Javonte Green ended up being big for another reason. It allowed coach Billy Donovan to sit MVP-candidate DeMar DeRozan for a much-needed rest.

The 32-year-old veteran had averaged just over 36 minutes per game in the five games leading up to the Thunder game, and Donovan was not thrilled with the workload he was putting on DeRozan’s shoulders, especially because of the upcoming schedule.

The Bulls still have 13 games left before All-Star Weekend, and that included three more back-to-backs.

Plus, with some minor slippage in the standings because of all the injuries, LaVine was well aware that this part of the schedule was key. At least on paper, the Bulls have very winnable games the next few weeks, including games against the Raptors (two), Spurs, Trail Blazers, Magic and Pacers.

Of those six games, the Raptors have the best record at 22-22 as of Tuesday.

DeRozan will be back to take on his former franchise, and it will be the first time he and LaVine have played together in six games.

Expect more than good enough.

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