In his eighth NBA season, Zach LaVine is in the playoffs for the first time. And the Chicago Bulls guard’s excitement is mixed with dogged relief.
“It’s about time,” LaVine said with a laugh Wednesday after practice.
As the Bulls prepare for Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, they need LaVine to assume the mantle as one of the best guards in the league — a position his teammates believe he always deserved.
“This has got to be the Zach LaVine coming-out party,” veteran center Tristan Thompson said. “He’s got to be the best guard in this series.”
That’s a celebration LaVine yearned to spark ever since the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him with the 13th pick in the 2014 draft. Instead, he spent the first seven seasons of his career drudging through loss-ridden seasons surrounded by underperforming rosters.
This is LaVine’s first time being part of a winning team. The Timberwolves won only 16 games in his first season; the Bulls won only 22 in his fifth and sixth. LaVine watched coaches from Flip Saunders to Fred Hoiberg to Jim Boylen bounce in and out of positions, leaving him behind to wonder when he would get a shot at the postseason.
“It was very mind-opening to me when I got here — this guy’s had six different coaches,” Donovan said. “He’s played on different teams. And he hasn’t necessarily been a part of a lot of success. Zach’s has always wanted to win. It’s always been important to him. I’m happy for him because you see the work he puts in.”
LaVine still carved a place for himself in the league despite all the losing. He won the Slam Dunk Contest twice. Last season he earned his first All-Star selection despite a frustrating 31–41 finish to the season.
But for NBA players, none of that matters without competing in the playoffs. As LaVine continued to shell out 30-point performances in meaningless losses, his frustration seeped onto the court. But the guard stayed the course, sticking with the Bulls even when wins seemed far away.
“Everybody’s got to play the card that they’re dealt,” LaVine said. “It just took me a little longer than everybody else, but I didn’t cop out and go to a different team.”
Although he leads the Bulls as a veteran, LaVine will approach his first playoff series with the same excitement as the team’s younger players. But throughout his career, LaVine did his best to study the atmosphere of a playoff series to prepare for his turn — whenever it came.
LaVine went to the 2016 and 2017 Finals to scope out the environment of those pitched battles between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Throughout the last week, he spent down time studying film from other postseasons to learn more about the rhythm of series.
“Whenever you can watch those, it just gets you in the right mind frame,” LaVine said.
In his playoff debut, LaVine will be fortified by DeMar DeRozan, the other half of the one-two punch that lifted the Bulls into the postseason.
That was the goal for DeRozan and LaVine since they first sat down to discuss the future of the Bulls last summer. The duo has spent countless hours in practice, on planes and over meals talking about how to get the Bulls back to the playoffs.
After all those moments, DeRozan said he hasn’t felt the need to give LaVine a pep talk this week.
“It’s not just one conversation that could be had in a day,” DeRozan said. “It’s been a buildup throughout the season, playing in big games, the high moments, the losses.”
This isn’t quite how LaVine pictured his first shot at the playoffs. He spent the latter half of the season nursing a left knee injury, which resulted in decreased mobility because of soreness and swelling.
The Bulls rested LaVine for the final game of the season. The weeklong layoff before Game 1 provided additional time to rest and reduce swelling. But LaVine knows he must play through discomfort — even pain — if the Bulls need to go the distance in their first-round series or beyond.
“I’m trying to get as close to healthy as I can and get my knee feeling as good as it can with still working out and playing,” LaVine said. “The time has been helping me because I’ve been able to get some treatment in and keep off of it.”
Regardless of how LaVine’s knee feels, the Bulls know what they need from him. For four years, the guard was a sole bright on the roster, pouring himself into last-ditch efforts to get the team into the win column. Even after DeRozan arrived in Chicago last offseason, LaVine represents the backbone of a rebuild that took years to grow fruit — and is still far from complete.
As the Bulls set off to Milwaukee, Thompson believes the challenge is clear for LaVine: “He’s got to have people leave that arena saying, ‘That boy Zach LaVine, it’s him, (Portland Trail Blazers guard) Donovan (Mitchell) and (Phoenix Suns guard) Devin Booker. They’re all in the same stratosphere.’ ”