Justin Holiday is coming off perhaps his best game of the season, 26 points with six three pointers on an unusually efficient 10 shots in the 124-115 Wednesday loss to the Toronto Raptors. As the Bulls prepare to play in Dallas Friday with a three-game losing streak chasing them, Holiday has quietly been a gainful producer, averaging 14.3 points on 42 percent three-point shooting the last seven games.
But it’s Holiday’s attitude as one of the few veteran voices on the team that may prove most vital in these coming weeks with change perhaps the Bulls most constant companion.
The trade landscape will grow more fertile with the new NBA trading deadline of Feb. 8. And with Zach LaVine, arguably the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade, apparently close to a return to the lineup.
“You just try to be as patient as you can, but know it's gonna be very soon,” Holiday told reporters before leaving for Dallas with the team Thursday afternoon. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said upon the return from the two-game trip to also Indiana, LaVine will meet with doctors, management and coaches to discuss a return, which LaVine keeps hinting is imminent.
“Ideally, I wish I could play tomorrow,” LaVine said. “In a perfect world, I could play right now. But it's not a perfect world. I'm just gonna wait and see, see how my body feels, go through these meetings and we're gonna find a date soon.”
LaVine had surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Feb. 14. He has been practicing with the team and the G-league Windy City Bulls affiliate for the last month with more intense scrimmages the last week.
The presumption is when LaVine is ready, even with a minutes restriction to start, he’ll likely start in the backcourt with Kris Dunn. Currently, Holiday has been starting there with Denzel Valentine at small forward. The thinking is one would return to the bench even as both have played well recently. Others could move out of the current rotation. Which is still all part of a team, and why it’s perhaps vital to have players like the 28-year-old Holiday.
Holiday was responding to questions late Wednesday night about a relative paucity of shot attempts lately, averaging about 10 the last eight games after about 16 the first eight games of the season.
“The start of the year I was shooting a lot of shots,” Holiday acknowledged. “Now we have Niko (Mirotic) back, Kris (Dunn) back. So a lot of shots are going around, too. I just think about how it’s going down and I think I’m passing the ball more; teams are on me, so I’m looking for other people.
“There are times I can think about taking more shots, but I just have to come and play the game and play as hard as I can,” says Holiday, averaging 13.6 points per game for the season, which is almost double his career average of 7.7 from last season in New York. “When I have looks, I’m going to (shoot). It’s what everyone on this floor wants to do. But I still understand the role I am in. I can’t come around here and pout and stuff if it isn’t happening for me.
“I have to carry myself a certain way regardless of how things go,” says the undrafted, journeyman 6-6 swingman who has played for five NBA teams as well as in the G-league, Belgium and Hungary. “I have to be an example. Just because I’m not getting a lot of shots (or minutes), I can’t be upset about that. You can’t come in and pout and let guys see you. Things aren’t always going to go your way. I still have a lot of positive going for me.
“It is something I had to learn,” Holiday admits. “Usually, I would just worry about myself, lock in on that and what I have to do. Now I have to understand I am kind of being looked at and to carry myself a certain way. How can you help the team? What can you do to help?"
It’s also one of the intangible reasons why this Bulls team, even just 13-25, has surprised many. Its teamwork, sacrifice and camaraderie has, in some respects, transcended the sum of its raw talent. Though even with the three recent relatively close losses, the Bulls have moved out of the league’s basement in scoring and three-point shooting. And into the top 10 overall in assists, rebounding, fewest turnovers, and pace of play, and second to Golden State in assist-to-turnover ratio.
There’s been stability recently with Mirotic’s return and Dunn excelling at point guard.
But winds of change may soon start things swaying. Just about all NBA players signed before the season began, like Nikola Mirotic, become available for trade in the next 10 days. Though the estimates vary, the way LaVine has been talking it is beginning to sound like his return is sooner than the expected later.
This all against the backdrop of this Bulls season teetering toward either a top spot in the draft lottery or otherwise altered expectations.
“I think he'll integrate himself into the team very quickly,” Hoiberg said about LaVine.
But with that comes caution.
“I think we have to be patient,” said Hoiberg. “He's going to come back after basically not playing competitive basketball for a full year. It’s impossible to simulate game situations. He's done a great job in practice and he's passed all the tests there. But once he gets out there in front of the fans, it's a completely different game, a completely different speed, That's going to be another part of it, getting used to the guys on the floor, but I think it will come quickly.”
It can’t come quickly enough for LaVine, who in meeting with reporters during the last two weeks repeatedly has stressed his readiness amidst joking he’d even be ready for a third slam dunk contest.
“It’s almost ran out,” LaVine said about his patience when talking with reporters before the new year. “I’m still there listening to everybody, but I feel ready. I’m antsy. I'm going through five, six straight days of practice. Full on, full blast. I'm close. I don't know if I have 100 percent my legs back, but I can definitely go out there and get buckets.”
Then following up with media Thursday, the dynamic 6-5 shooting guard from UCLA said he’s studied for weeks like he’s playing.
"Giving my thoughts and opinions on the game. Just try to stay involved as much as possible. At first I didn't want to look at basketball when I got hurt, but now I'm back in the full swing of things" said LaVine.“
“I don't have any fear whatsoever,” LaVine said about his practice sessions. “I'm gonna play the same way. Mentally, I'm perfectly fine. I'm better than I was before. I knew what I went through and came out a better basketball player. You never know until you step out there. I haven't played in 10, 11 months. Timing, rhythm has to come into play. But I've worked so hard so it wouldn't be a hard transition. I wouldn't say I'm angry or annoyed. It's just getting to a point where you wanna do what you love. It's like being held away from your kids or something. That's my feeling for basketball. I wanna go out there and play the game I love.”