Zach LaVine was returning questions from reporters late Wednesday night like in a tennis match after the Bulls narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors. Your knee? Your wind? Your conditioning? Your shooting after a two-of-12 game? Good, good, all good. It's been something of a puzzlement in the three-game return for LaVine after ACL surgery and 11 months not playing in an NBA game. How could he look that comfortable? Something must be wrong.
LaVine already is the perhaps the most patient and forthright with media, and not that he was exasperated. But he turned back to reporters:
"You guys tell me," he said rhetorically with a welcoming smile because, well, he knew. "Think I did all right first three games?"
Very impressive. Very impressive, indeed.
Sure, LaVine had a difficult shooting game against the Warriors, who are a top defensive team and loaded up against LaVine. Klay Thompson had LaVine blinders on. Wonder why Robin Lopez had basically no one guarding him on the first two plays of the game? He turned to hand off, but with a lane so open to the basket he immediately was reminded of the the Israelis escaping Egypt, Lopez basically walked in and dunked. It's why he had 10 first quarter points and Justin Holiday eight.
The best teams identify the greatest threats and try to neutralize them first.
So LaVine closed his first recovery period averaging 12.3 points, three assists and 2.3 rebounds in 19.4 minutes per game. You figure little Freddy Hoiberg always had his homework in on time. He practically hit that 20-minute limit perfectly.
The Bulls Saturday play in Atlanta in phase two of LaVine's wean from his limitations with probably an additional four or five minutes per game and some fourth quarter playing time.
"Zach will be extended," Hoiberg told reporters Friday before the team left for Atlanta. "He'll get a few more minutes on this trip. I believe we'll try to get him up around 24. See how he responds these next three games. He will start getting some fourth quarter minutes. We're not going to overextend him. It's still very early in the process as far as getting in game shape. We don't want him to get fatigued. We'll keep his rotation stretches short. But we'll have him available some in the fourth to give us what Kris (Dunn) does down the stretch.
Who, by the way, may be done for this trip.
On second review after Dunn's frightening fall late in Wednesday's game, Dunn was placed in the league's concussion analysis. He won't play Saturday and it's unclear if he will join the team on the three-game trip to New Orleans Monday and Philadelphia Wednesday. Jerian Grant will start at point guard. The team added Ryan Arcidiacono for emergency point guard play. Both LaVine and Denzel Valentine have been used as facilitators.
"The thing we're thankful for is it wasn't worse," said Hoiberg. "That could've been a major, major injury. Obviously, it is a significant one with the concussion. The way he fell and hit headfirst, we're really thankful he'll be back hopefully before too long. Obviously, we'll take a cautious approach because of how significant concussions are. Once the doctors deem he's ready to go, there's a chance he could join us (on the trip). But we'll take it slow. He's in a lot of pain."
LaVine, remarkably, seems fit, energetic and pain free.
In his first two games, LaVine averaged 16 points and 3.5 assists on 12 of 21 shooting and five of eight on threes. He was zero for five on threes against the Warriors, but made his first dunk in his return and continued to move confidently.
That has been the relief for the Bulls perhaps more than LaVine.
From the start of training camp, LaVine has been certain and confident about his return and ability to reclaim his place among the game's rising young talents.
The Bulls are 17-28. Saturday's game is important because against the 13-31 Hawks it is perhaps the best chance for the Bulls to win on this trip. The Pelicans and 76ers both are above .500 and playing well. It's also likely without a back to back that Joel Embiid will play against the Bulls for the first time in his four years in the NBA because of injuries and rest periods.
LaVine also is building up to full-time play, and seems, like with his recovery from surgery, to be expediting the process.
"We progressed and got to the point where now I can start putting more minutes into the book and get back to a regular playing schedule," said LaVine. "I'm just extremely happy to be back out here playing again. I feel the consistency will come the more you start getting consistent minutes and understand your spots and times in the game; so I am looking forward to that.
"I've got to get conditioning back to where it needs to be offensively and defensively. I just missed some easy shots early (against the Warriors)," said LaVine. "It's the way the ball goes. I'm not scared to go out and take shots; just didn't make them. Still the same energy. I was up for the game, was playing really good, facilitating, a really tough assignment on defense (Thompson). I'm all good."
He really is.
LaVine has demonstrated confidence, leadership, shooting ability and anxiety less about his condition and health than his need to increase his role and playing time. His defense has been uncertain, which perhaps suggests his willingness to play like his teammates. The Bulls have been so much better offensively with speed, spacing and shooting that the slippage on defense has been more apparent. Players talk about, well, talking more, though running back also would be helpful. It's a work in progress and all that.
"I think I showed myself I'm ready to bump up on the 20 minutes," LaVine said. "I'm back playing and back in the thick of things. I think I passed all the eye tests and all the evaluations I needed to with the 20-minute restriction. Keep getting back in the groove, getting a rhythm, making the right plays and communication and continuity. I feel I've alway been able to score the ball. (Against Golden State the shots) just did not go in; everything is feeling good to me."
And certainly because of that to everyone else with the Bulls.