Zach LaVine made his season debut for the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After missing the first two games to manage a left knee injury, LaVine seemed to be back in peak form in his return to the United Center. He drained a 3-pointer on the second Bulls possession of the game and finished with 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting and added four assists in the home opener.
LaVine played 28 minutes, attacking double teams and ripping up the lane for searing layups in the first half. But he faded in the second half, scoring only six points while shooting 2-for-6 from 3-point range.
And LaVine’s return wasn’t enough to buoy the Bulls, who fell 128-96 for a second straight loss. The starting lineup matched blows with the Cavaliers — who were missing All-Star guard Darius Garland — but the bench couldn’t keep up with the high pace of play.
The Cavaliers scored 20 points on the fast break and gashed the Bulls’ secondary rotation any time coach Billy Donovan rested his starters. Donovan Mitchell led with 32 points as the Cavaliers shot 59.3% (16-for-27) from 3-point range.
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After scoring 13 points, DeMar DeRozan was ejected from the game with 4 minutes, 30 seconds remaining with a pair of straight technical fouls, encapsulating the team’s frustration in the loss.
LaVine’s return to form was a balm for the Bulls in the loss, but his availability remains a looming question over the upcoming weeks.
Donovan emphasized that the Bulls medical staff doesn’t believe there is any structural damage in LaVine’s left/ knee. The soreness and discomfort holding the guard out of a normal load of games is believed to be a residual effect of the arthroscopic surgery LaVine underwent over the summer.
“There’s nothing wrong with his knee,” Donovan said before the game. “He’s cleared to play. The fact of the matter is because he had an ACL surgery, because he’s had some scopes, there could be some times where he has some discomfort there. Us being able to manage that is going to be really the most important thing.”
Donovan said LaVine will not play under a minutes restriction during this ramp-up period — if he’s cleared to play a game, he’ll be cleared to go all-out. LaVine’s availability will remain a day-to-day decision made after discussions among LaVine, the medical staff and Donovan.
The Bulls are scheduled for three more back-to-backs in the next three weeks. Donovan said LaVine will not play at least one game in each of those series. The team also plays six games in four cities in the first eight days of November, a stretch that will similarly test LaVine’s capacity for a larger workload.
“It’s hard with him to say, ‘All right, here’s 82 games, we’re taking this one off and this one off,’ ” Donovan said. “You just can’t do that. You’ve got to take his temperature and see how he responds because there’s times he feels great, but then at times he has some soreness or discomfort.”