Bulls’ Zach LaVine looking for practice game as he manages knee

BOSTON — Zach LaVine’s game has evolved over time. He went from athletic dunker to elite jump shooter.

But his stunning athleticism proved consistent.

That’s why his first three quarters in the Chicago Bulls’ 123-119 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday night stood out so much.

LaVine took eight shots in the first half against an elite, changing the defense for the Celtics. None were within 10 feet. Seven of the eight were 20 feet or more.

Then, in 6 minutes and 18 seconds of third quarter playing time, LaVine had a shot, a missed 3-pointer from 29 feet.

LaVine laughed when told that not every game would be a referendum on his twice surgically repaired left knee. Still, LaVine’s lack of drive through the fourth quarter was hard to ignore.

When asked directly if he still felt if he had his normal lift and explosion when attacking the rim, LaVine answered transparently.

“Obviously, I’m not quite back yet. I feel that. I’m not going to lie. But it comes,” LaVine said. “I’m not scared or anything like that. There are seven games. I feel good.

Some qualifying: LaVine was playing his third game in four nights that featured his first streak of back-to-back games. The Celtics frequently change and crumble in the lane, a defensive trait LaVine and coach Billy Donovan noted when asked about LaVine’s night.

It’s not like LaVine played badly. He finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists while reading the game effectively, even drawing praise from Donovan for making the right read on a pass to Patrick Williams for a last-minute 3-point attempt that Williams missed.

“I was reading the defense. They double switch and pack the paint. You could see in the second half, even when we were rolling, they were crumbling on the paint,” LaVine said. “I don’t get a lot of isolations, so it’s not like a clear side. Most of the time it’s pick-and-roll or transition and they go through the lane. I try to play the right game and look for my teammates.

Donovan added: “I think one of the things he was trying to do, which I thought was positive, was they were changing a lot. And he was looking for opportunities behind some switches to maybe get out some 3s. In doing so, that may have taken away some of the aggression. I thought in the second half he was trying to come down a bit. He didn’t have a lot of good angles. But he was fouled and went to the free throw line.

LaVine attempted all three of his free throws in the fourth quarter when he attacked the lane more. Even then, however, LaVine made the contact from a more grounded position than the high-flying sports acts of the recent past.

When asked if we were making too much of LaVine’s lack of trying to soak it all up, he became a philosopher.

“You might be. You might not be. I don’t know. I’m just trying to get back into rhythm and figure out what feels good and what doesn’t right now,” LaVine said. “There were a few plays where I felt like I could have taken off. There were a few plays where the defense came in and they’re already in a shot-blocking position, so it’s a good idea to try to make contact and reach the line.

“Sometimes I can stop and jump and do a few different little jumps or floats. MJ (Michael Jordan) was better when he came back from baseball, but he didn’t dunk as much. Maybe I don’t need to keep wear. It’s also a matter of longevity.”

LaVine is playing the long game. That’s what two knee surgeries will do. And as long as LaVine’s continued evolution leads to points — no matter how they come — and wins, you’ll be fine. Different, but good.

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