By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — Four days prior, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson had stressed the Bulls had no expectations. Just shy of two hours before tip-off Saturday, coach Fred Hoiberg wondered aloud if he might be gassed within one minute.
Guess you could say Zach LaVine’s debut with the Bulls went better than anyone could’ve hoped.
Playing in a game for the first time in 344 days after tearing his left ACL last Feb. 3 while still with the Timberwolves, LaVine scored 14 points in helping the Bulls to a 107-105 victory against the Pistons at the United Center. His night started with a 3-pointer from the right wing on the Bulls’ first possession and it ended with the third-quarter horn, LaVine playing 19 minutes, 10 seconds to stay within his initial 20-minute limit.
“It felt really good,” LaVine said in reflecting upon his return after a long rehab. “Just to be out there playing again, having that feeling. I haven’t had it in such a long time.
“Made me a better person, a better player. I’m just happy to come out of it, get back to doing what I love. It was a long process. That full year, especially being away from basketball, it sucks.”
LaVine shot 5-of-9 from the field, including 3-of-4 on 3-pointers, and added two assists against one turnover. He looked quick, beating his defender off the dribble for a twisting scoop layup on one occasion. He started because the Bulls wanted to get a look at him alongside the likes of fellow building blocks Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, but he did run with the second unit in a second-quarter stint as well.
In a nod to him being the next face of the franchise, LaVine was introduced last in pregame, a gesture he didn’t know was coming. He received a nice ovation. He received a bigger roar in a postgame on-court interview, feeding the fans back by telling them he loved them.
“The one at the end of the game felt really good, just to hear Chicago embrace me,” said LaVine, whose mother, girlfriend, agent and sister were among those in attendance.
“You got to prove your worth, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. It just feels really good to have this city applaud for you like that in the arena, to be behind you.”
LaVine maintained that his surgically repaired left knee felt “really good,” and he played free. He showed no signs of hesitation, explaining later that there was “nothing to be scared of” because he put the proper work in during an 11-month recovery and rehab process.
In the first half, Niko Mirotic threw a lob pass to LaVine, who had designs on a thunderous dunk. The pass was a bit behind him, and LaVine’s twisting layup attempt missed. He told to Mirotic that he just needed to throw the ball higher and closer to the rim, and he’ll take care of the rest.
LaVine’s main concern was his conditioning, as he admitted he was fatigued in his four-minute stint in the first quarter and again within five minutes in the third quarter.
“I was relaxed, understanding the positioning and read the defense well,” LaVine said. “The main thing was I just got tired really fast, out of breath. There’s nothing that can simulate game situations.”
LaVine will remain on the 20-minue limit for at least the Bulls’ next two games, coach Fred Hoiberg said — against the Heat on Monday and Warriors on Wednesday. After that, his workload may increase, and he’ll keep attacking the learning curve.
“He’s such a fluid basketball player,” Hoiberg said of LaVine. “Didn’t get to the corner a couple of times, we’ll have to work on that. He glides up the floor. He can handle it. He hit a couple threes off the bounce, where he just kind of froze the defender. He’s just a guy that plays the game easy.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.