Intriguing question for Bulls: What happens when LaVine returns?
The Bulls' win streak ended with a quality loss in Cleveland, so maybe their sudden improvement isn't a fluke.
What makes the situation even more interesting is Zach LaVine -- the Bulls' best player, in theory -- is expected to join the lineup in the next couple of weeks. What happens then?
The obvious answer is he should help, but there figures to be an adjustment period, both with LaVine getting used to his surgically-repaired left knee and his Bulls teammates getting familiar with him.
LaVine should drop easily into the Bulls offense, which features a fast pace, plenty of 3-point shots and tries to create driving lanes. Before the injury, at least, the 6-5 LaVine was one of the most athletic players in the NBA, a two-time slam dunk contest champ.
The smaller details might take some time to figure out. When he tore the ACL in his left knee last Feb. 3, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points and 3.0 assists for Minnesota. His 3-point shooting was at 38.7 percent, which would rank third among current Bulls, behind Nikola Mirotic and Denzel Valentine.
Here's one concern: The Bulls don't need an injection of offense right now. During the past eight games, they're averaging 111.3 points, which ranks fifth in the league.
If LaVine comes back thinking he needs to be the Bulls' alpha scorer, or if he's eager to post big numbers because he'll be a restricted free agent next summer, there could be problems. The Bulls offense has worked best when everyone's moving the ball and nobody is trying to go one-on-one early in the shot clock.
This issue may turn out fine. LaVine has been around the team all season watching how they play. He should turn out to be a more talented version of Justin Holiday, someone who can score in transition, at the 3-point line and attacking the basket.
LaVine actually made a quick recovery from ACL surgery. He has been doing skill work since the summer and he said his speed and jumping ability is measuring slightly higher than it did before the injury.
So there's a chance LaVine hits the ground running -- and jumping. The Bulls have been dreaming of a speed lineup featuring LaVine, Kris Dunn, David Nwaba and their outside-shooting big men, Mirotic and Lauri Markkanen.
Dunn knows LaVine as well as anyone, since they played with the Timberwolves for about half of last season.
"When Zach comes back we'll be even better," Dunn said recently. "Scoring guard, he can put the ball in the hoop in various ways -- off the bounce, trey ball, attacking in transition. He's definitely a great player. His defense is even getting better, from Minnesota to here. The coaching staff is doing an unbelievable job teaching him."
It seems logical to assume LaVine will be in the starting lineup. Valentine figures to join the reserves and Paul Zipser might fall out of the rotation. Valentine is a streaky outside shooter who is probably better suited to come off the bench.
The players who have been most effective late in games are Dunn and Mirotic. Dunn has turned into a nice creator in recent weeks who has gotten to the basket and knocked down jumpers in crunchtime. Mirotic has been a frequent passing target for Dunn, and having LaVine and Markkanen standing by as extra options should be tough to defend.
One question that remains is how well LaVine can create shots for himself. He was a third option behind Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns in Minnesota. Late in games, the Bulls have done well by putting the ball in Dunn's hands, so there may be no need to change the plan.
There isn't a firm timetable for LaVine's return yet. The Bulls feel he's ready to increase his practice schedule for a week or so, then the team will decide whether or not to give him some game action with the Windy City Bulls.
For plenty of reasons, this Bulls seasons has gotten considerably more interesting in the last few weeks.
Bulls scouting reportBulls vs. Boston Celtics at TD Garden, 6:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Chicago • Radio: WLS 890-AM
Outlook: After a great start, which included a 16-game win streak, the Celtics (26-9) have dropped off a little, going 4-5 in their last nine games. One of those losses was the 108-85 blowout at the United Center on Dec. 11 with Kyrie Irving sidelined by injury. Irving is back and he scored 32 points in Thursday's loss at New York. SG Jaylen Brown (14.5 ppg) missed the Knicks game with a sore Achilles, so his status is unclear for this one. SF Marcus Morris has missed eight games with a knee injury and is targeting a Christmas Day return. C Al Horford and rookie PF Jayson Tatum are both averaging 13.9 ppg.
Next: Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center on Tuesday, 7 p.m.
-- Mike McGraw