Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau was with Zach LaVine on Saturday morning, after a magnetic resonance imaging exam had been taken on his left knee, when the 21-year-old shooting guard learned his season was over because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Initially, Thibodeau said, LaVine was disappointed. But it didn’t take long for disappointment to turn into determination. “He was already talking about how he wants to get ready for rehab, to start working,” Thibodeau said. “To prepare to come back.”
LaVine tore the ligament in the third quarter of Friday’s loss at Detroit. Thibodeau said he didn’t know exactly when the injury occurred.
With 7 minutes, 20 seconds left in the quarter, LaVine drove the lane, rose for a layup and collided with Pistons center Andre Drummond as the two converged near the basket. Despite the contact, LaVine made the layup. But, his legs knocked out from under him, LaVine fell hard as he landed. Replays showed LaVine landed on his right leg, his left foot did bang hard on the floor, and it was the left knee he clutched after going down in a heap under the basket.
In the ensuing timeout, he limped to the Wolves bench, accompanied by teammates and the athletic training staff. Thibodeau said LaVine said he felt OK. After a timeout, LaVine stayed in the game and played until he was replaced by Shabazz Muhammad with 1:47 left in the quarter. LaVine started the fourth quarter but was replaced by Andrew Wiggins only 37 seconds in.
“The medical staff gave him an evaluation, and he felt he could play,” Thibodeau said. “And he played some. When he went back the next time, he felt something wasn’t right. But there is no way to know for sure. It was an awkward landing on that play, so I don’t know.”
What is certain is that LaVine — who worked to elevate his game, both over the summer, in camp and during the season — is done for the 2016-17 campaign.
Thibodeau said LaVine, who had posted career highs in scoring (18.9 points per game), minutes (37.2, tied for third-most in the league), rebounds (3.4) and steals (0.9), had made himself into “one of the best 2-guards in the league.”
“His overall game had blossomed,” Thibodeau said. “He’s shooting the three great, the free throws, the drives. All of it. He’ll get through it. He’s a mentally tough kid. He’s already talking about what’s next.”
Immediately for the Wolves, the injury means veteran Brandon Rush moves into the starting lineup. He started two of the three games LaVine missed earlier this season — all three Wolves victories — and averaged 11.5 points on 8-for-16 shooting. It also means the Wolves, who have yet to fill the roster spot created when John Lucas III was waived Jan. 7, will likely need to add a player soon.
Interestingly, Rush has had reconstructive surgeries on both knees. So he knows what LaVine is up against.
“I feel for him, big-time,” Rush said. “But Zach is young, 21 years old. He’ll be back 100 percent next year.”
No date has yet been set for surgery. But the rule of thumb in such cases suggests a recovery time of at least nine months.
LaVine was sick and missed the Nov. 13 game vs. the Los Angeles Lakers. He was replaced in the lineup for that game by Nemanja Bjelica, who scored 24 points in the Wolves’ 125-99 victory. LaVine then missed two games in mid-January because of a sore hip, with Rush replacing him in both games.
The injury lessens the options the Wolves have should they decide to pursue Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or another veteran star before this month’s trade deadline or this summer’s draft. It also likely will affect negotiations when LaVine is eligible for a huge contract extension starting this summer.
But those are concerns for another day. Saturday, the Wolves were worried about LaVine as a friend and teammate.
Karl-Anthony Towns sat next to LaVine on the flight home Friday. He talked to him Saturday morning. When he heard the diagnosis, Towns said he cried.
“He’s not just a teammate, he’s my brother, one of my best friends,” Towns said. “I see him coming back with even more bounce than before he got hurt. He’ll be able to jump higher, which is ridiculous to think about.”
Staff writer Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report.