Bulls stay alive for final play-in spot, playing follow the leaderJoe Cowleyon May 14, 2021 at 2:56 am

Zach LaVine might not deliver this team to the post-season, but at least one teammates feels he has emerged as a leader, not only for this year but beyond.

Zach LaVine has always said the right things.

Credit his upbringing or his make-up, there are seldom verbal missteps coming from the Bulls guard.

This year, however, he’s finally doing the right things.

There are actions behind his words. That’s why he’s emerged as a true leader for this group this season, and hopefully beyond.

The latest evidence of that was on Thursday at the United Center, as the Bulls were facing a completely undermanned Toronto roster in what was still a must-win situation for the home team, and while LaVine wasn’t looking to score 40, he was looking to play a complete game on both ends of the floor.

Thanks to LaVine’s efficient 24-point night and solid defense, the Bulls beat the Raptors 114-102, staying alive for the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with two games left.

The problem is that those two games might not mean a thing.

The Bulls (30-40) are off until Saturday afternoon, but with Washington playing the Cavaliers on Friday, it could be wrapped up by the Wizards with a win.

Obviously, a massive gut-punch to LaVine & Co. if it happens, especially with how much they talked about wanting to be a playoff team this season.

What it won’t take away, however, is the leadership role LaVine established with this group this season. A far cry from last year, when he was passed over as a captain in a team vote.

“I think this year was definitely a growth year for Zach from the simple fact of he was more vocal than anything, he always voiced his opinion,’’ veteran forward Thad Young said. “He helped guys out through the course of games, he went out there and got after it defensively. Offensively, we all know what he can do. He led by example each and every day. I just think that this year was really a big period of growth for him and I think he can lead this franchise and take this franchise to the next level.’’

There’s been a reminder of that since his return in the last week alone.

LaVine missed 11 games after testing positive for the coronavirus back on April 15, as the Bulls went from holding a play-in spot when he went down to losing it in his absence.

He’s now returned for the last five games, and the Bulls are 4-1 since he’s been back.

What’s impressed key voices in the locker room like Young’s is LaVine’s acceptance to try and be a more consistent two-way player this season, and then come back from a long layoff with that same mentality – play both ends of the floor.

“I think that was one of the most important parts, the most important keys,’’ Young said. “Me, I’ve been staying on him all season long. Billy [Donovan] and the coaches have been staying on him all season long, and telling him that’s the next level of growth for him. He has to be a two-way guy. He can’t just play one side of the basketball because it’s not going to help you win games. I think he’s taken on that challenge.’’

Not the only challenge, either.

By going 3-for-7 from three-point range in the win over Toronto, LaVine became the first Bulls player in franchise history to record 200 threes in a single season.

Just another sign of his evolution, both on and off the court.

“Winning is important to him,’’ Donovan said after the latest win of LaVine. “I think he’s figuring out the mental side of what goes into that.’’

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