Zach LaVine scores 32 despite sore neck in Bulls' Sunday night loss to 76ers

Despite being a game-time decision with a sore neck, Zach LaVine displayed toughness with a 32 point performance on over 50% shooting in a 118-111 loss to the 76ers.

It wasn't exactly a profile in courage Sunday evening in Philadelphia. After all, it was just a basketball game, and one the Bulls lost 118-111 to the Philadelphia 76ers, the team's fifth consecutive loss in dropping to a season worst 16 games under .500 at 19-35.

But in choosing to play despite a painful neck injury, Zach LaVine with a team high 32 points and eight assists forced the heavily favored 76ers to barely escape down the stretch and perhaps more so demonstrated the tenacity and strength of character not only so rare in the NBA these days but a hopeful sign for the Bulls future in this bleak time.

Zach LaVine scores 32 points on Sunday night despite a sore neck.

"I train for this," LaVine said, peeling off the kinesiology tape that decorate players' wounds these days. "My body is OK. I feel I'm the type of dude who can deal with it. I'm going to go out there and fight for my team. I don't care if it's one versus 100, I'm going to go out there swingin', get my punches in. That's why I wanted to play through this injury. To let them know I'm not just going to go out there and not help.

"I don't like missing games," said LaVine, who with Tomas Satoransky has started every game this season. "Since I hurt myself and had to miss all those games (ACL tear in 2017), it takes a toll in you. I love basketball. I'm going to go out there and play if I can."

Which despite the staggering toll of losses this season, at least continues to keep the Bulls competitive. After falling behind by 15 points in the second quarter, the Bulls surged to several third quarter leads that brought home court boos and anxiety and an 83 tie after three. The 76ers led by Joel Embiid with 28 points and 12 rebounds—offset by 38 points and nine rebounds by the Bulls center tandem of Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio—and shooter Furkan Korkmaz off the bench with 31 points, scored on their first 11 possessions of the fourth quarter.

But like the relentless posse, the Bulls still were chasing and were within 114-109 with just under a minute left when Embiid, as the shot clock was about to expire, made a long three pointer to secure the win for the shaky 76ers, now 33-21.

"Probably was the shot we'd like him to take and he makes it," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said with a sigh.

It's the kind of thing that happens in seasons like this.

Chuck Swirsky with BullsTV recaps tonight's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers

Though the play and belief of LaVine is not lost on his teammates even if it ends in defeat more often than they'd like. There's just not enough around with the injuries to Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. So no one would have blamed LaVine if he sat out his first game of the season, aching since suffering a shoulder injury in the Friday loss to the Pelicans. The Bulls listed LaVine questionable for Sunday's game, which few believed the Bulls even had a chance with the 76ers finally healthy and having added players in trade.

"Before I got a couple of massages I was, ‘Ah, I don't know about this,'" LaVine said. "I was moving like a robot."

So with the Bulls cancelling their morning shootaround practice with so many injuries, LaVine went to the arena Sunday morning with assistant coach Shawn Respert.

"He was the only guy that went over and shot and he got himself ready to play," said Boylen.

LaVine said he took about 200 jumpers to loosen up and be reassured he'd be able to play. "If I could take 200 I'll be all right in the game to take 20," LaVine said.

And then he played a game high 40 minutes, in one third quarter stretch when the Bulls surged into the lead either scoring or assisting on 25 straight points. LaVine is averaging 37 minutes per game the last seven games.

"We rely on his scoring every night," said Satoransky. "He feels comfortable in this position; that's what he wants. He wants to be the franchise player. Obviously, he's been doing it. He deserved to be in the All-Star game, especially the way he carries our team offensively and we've just got to help put him in easy spots sometime. He wants always the tough points and he's been doing that. All the focus of defense is on him and sometimes we struggle trying to find the different options when defenses are over him

"I think it shows a lot about his character," Satoransky continued. "We talked about it before the game because he two days ago wasn't sure he was going to play. I am still a believer. I believe we still can make a good push to try to make the playoffs. It shows that he is thinking every game is important and he just wants to do everything possible to get another win. Also it's motivation when you see your best player do that and I think it helps also the young guys, which we have a lot. They'll see someone as an example who plays through injury and is out there competing; that is great for this team."

Which is a substantial reason even beyond his 25 points per game average and routinely against defenses loaded toward him that LaVine's omission from Sunday's All-Star game in Chicago is a travesty. Not because this is the Bulls web site, but because the NBA is facing an existential problem. Its best players often simply don't want to play. Look even at the All-Stars. There haven't been serious injuries, but Embiid, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry have missed double digit games. Everyone but Bam Adebayo has missed multiple games for often curious reasons. Sure, it's a long season and the playoffs are vital. But don't they owe the community something, the game? Since when is not showing up worthy of applause?

"Zach's a G," said 13-year veteran Thaddeus Young. "He's one of the realest ever as far as just dealing with him. He understands we're down right now, down some guys and he's going to have to be there for his guys. He's our leader. In order for us to have a chance to win a game, he has to play. He told me before the game, ‘I'm not gonna leave y'all hangin; I'm gonna be there for you.' I already knew that. I knew he was going to come to this game and get himself ready as much as possible and be ready to play. He's definitely a G. He's going to go out there and continue to fight for us just like we are fighting for him."

"G?" I wondered.

"He's gangsta," explained Young. "Tough; he's got the gangsta in him."

It was explained to me that's a good thing.

Not that LaVine was perfect Sunday, committing nine turnovers in a face-off with Ben Simmons, who had a triple double with 19 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and seven turnovers. The difference was that pretty much everywhere LaVine went, 76ers players were chasing him like he stole the Cheez-Whiz from the cheesesteak stand.

"It was a big play when we were down by (five) and Embiid hit that three," LaVine agreed. "We come down, turn it over. I had a couple of bonehead turnovers trying to make plays. We fought with them and that's all you can ask for, to make it a game down the stretch. We're still battling."

There's just not enough there, though the Bulls got some surprising contributions as Kornet had a career high 25 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter comeback, and Felicio continued to be productive, especially on the offensive boards and had 13 points and seven rebounds as the pair held off the powerful Embiid.

Luke Kornet dunks the ball for two of his career high 25 points

"Luke's getting better," said Boylen. "He's kind of who we thought he could be. He can roll and he can pop. He's a good passer. He can play in the pocket and on the perimeter. I think the center position played well tonight."

LaVine also applauded the work of the off-maligned Felicio.

"Felicio is probably one of the best screeners in the NBA just for his size," LaVine said. "I love him out there. I normally get open (shots). In the pocket he's catching it and making his plays. He played well."

Young had a double/double with 10 points and 10 rebounds and Satoransky had 10 points and seven assists as the Bulls play in Washington Tuesday in their last game before the All-Star break. But without Dunn and Carter, the defense continues to ail as the 76ers rolled to a 38-25 first quarter lead and 42-27 early in the second quarter as the expected non compete clause seemed in effect. But LaVine got going and added a few nice two-man plays with Felicio to close the first half and then went all-Zach in the third quarter, a 10-2 Bulls start and a LaVine three jamboree of five three pointers, each one more difficult than the previous as the edgy home fans unleashed two rounds of booing.

"I thought we battled," said Boylen. "We played hard and played together and got a lot from a lot of guys. I liked our spirit and togetherness. I thought they made a few more shots. Got the ball to Embiid deep. We weren't going to double him. I thought our game plan was solid; make him play a two-point (shooting) game. It's 83-83 to start the fourth; we're right there."

Zach LaVine goes up for a bucket against Philadelphia's Ben Simmons & Al Horford

The 76ers finally abandoned their me, me, me perimeter game and scored 16 of their first 18 fourth quarter points on dunks and layups, forcing their way inside behind Embiid, cutting and darting until a Tobias Harris three with 6:25 left seemed to give them room with a nine-point lead. The 76ers got it to 11 with 3:27 left before the Bulls made one more run that Embiid held off with that three just after the 76ers got a favorable review on what seemed like a sixth straight turnover.

LaVine warmed up some for the three-point contest as sadly the Bulls lone All-Star weekend representative making five of 10. Ever ready; an energizer.

"I missed enough games in my career," said LaVine. "If I'm injured, I'm injured. I'm not going to out (and harm) myself or my team. But if I can go out there and help and I know what I can do, I'm going to be out there. I'm not going to take games off."

What a novel approach in this NBA. That's really what Be like Mike is about.