Bulls guard Zach LaVine may have no choice but to evolve his game

TORONTO – Zach LaVine sat in front of his locker, clad in only a towel and bags of ice on the knees of his outstretched legs.

There was a lot he was seemingly looking to explain after the Friday loss to Boston.

First and foremost, why was the Bulls guard settling for jumpers throughout the first half? And why only one shot attempt in the third? Then when he did get aggressive in the fourth, where was the explosion that has put opposing defenders on posters for years?

If only LaVine had better answers.

Not because he wasn’t willing to give them. He’s just dealing with too many unknowns.

“Obviously, I’m not all the way back yet,” LaVine said of his 6-for-13 shooting night. “I feel that. I’m not going to lie. But it’s coming.”

Not exactly what anyone wanted to hear from a player that just had five years and $215 million invested in him less than four months ago. Then again, LaVine sounded tired of trying to downplay the effects of the offseason left knee surgery. It was time for some transparency.

The good news to come out of Friday was that LaVine even played.

Handcuffed with a load management schedule for the knee throughout the first few weeks of the regular season, it was LaVine’s third game in four nights. Uncharted territory for the two-time All-Star under his current constraints.

So why chance it now?

The truth is this might be LaVine’s norm moving forward. The knee discomfort might be what he has to deal with the rest of this season or even worse, the rest of his career. He needs to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

If that means some shaky nights, so be it.

Like he insisted last year, “Me at 80%, 70%, whatever it is, I’m still one of the best players in the NBA and damn sure one of the best players on the court when we play.”

In the first of the three games last Tuesday in Brooklyn, it was vintage LaVine, scoring 20 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter and playing his best game of the season. The follow-up a night later, however, was almost expected, as LaVine shot just 4-for-16 in his first back-to-back.

After a day off on Thursday, LaVine finished with 16 points in the loss to Boston, and when he did go to the rim it was more react than attack.

And that was the other layer that LaVine brought up in the visiting locker room of TD Garden – that maybe it was time for him to evolve his game. Asked if his days of being a high-flier were behind him, LaVine responded, “You might be [right]. You might not be. I don’t know. MJ [Michael Jordan] was better when he came back off of baseball, but he didn’t dunk as much. Maybe I don’t need to keep the wear and tear. It’s about longevity too.”

Again, none of these are answers that should be coming out of the mouth of a max player, but it isn’t like the Bulls can take the contract back. LaVine put himself in position to have a big pay day. Now, he has to put himself in position to try and carry out that contract the best way he can.

Will he ever be able to justify max money? If the knee stays where it is and the defense remains suspect, that’s a hard no. What he needs to do for now, however, is just play. He’s been told that the knee is secure, and he’s getting a grasp of the discomfort and how to deal with it.

There are still a lot of unknowns for LaVine in front of him.

Evolving as those are figured out isn’t a bad thing.

But just in case, keep the ice bags nearby.

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