Zach LaVine will miss Game 5 after the Chicago Bulls star enters the health and safety protocols for the third time in the past year.

The Chicago Bulls spent most of the regular season at the mercy of an injury report, including an early setback by Patrick Williams, a season-ending end by Lonzo Ball, and a string of injuries. 18 players and staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

And that’s exactly how the team looks set to end the season after Zach LaVine put in place health and safety protocols Tuesday morning ahead of a potential elimination game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

LaVine out for 5th game of the first round serieswhich tips Wednesday at 6:30 pm. Coach Billy Donovan said LaVine was tested for COVID-19 on Tuesday morning after “not feeling well” and tested positive shortly before the Bulls entered the court for practice. The Bulls came to Milwaukee without LaVine.

LaVine averaged 19.3 points on 42.9% shooting in the first four games of the series. He is one of three Bulls players – along with Demar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic – to average double-digit points in the series.

But LaVine’s influence goes beyond scoring statistics – he is the core of the Bulls offense, inseparable from the team’s personality.

“He’s Zach. It’s hard to replace,” DeRozan said. “Who he is, the attention he gets, that’s a different dynamic of the game when Zach isn’t around. We just need to figure it out (Wednesday) tonight. We need to find the strength to fight for him.

It was must have been an avalanche moment. After eight long seasons filled mostly with losses and disappointments, he finally found in DeRozan a scoring partner and a shot at the NBA playoffs. Center Tristan Thompson affectionately called the playoffs “Zach LaVine’s exit party” a week before Game 1 in Milwaukee.

But LaVine hasn’t been able to do anything easy this season and is now in his third protocol round in over a year.

LaVine tested positive for COVID-19 last Aprilmissing several weeks during the Bulls’ quest to make the play-in tournament. He tested positive again in December during an epidemic in the league amid a surge in the omicron variant. LaVine said he had no symptoms during both bouts of the virus.

Even as concerns about COVID eased, LaVine’s health remained in the spotlight as he struggled to overcome nagging swelling and soreness in his left knee. After opting for the knee in the second half of Game 4 on Sunday, LaVine joked that he was “limping all year.”

Testing positive for COVID-19 the day before the first playoff elimination game of his career is the final blow.

DeRozan called LaVine the morning before the test results came in, suggesting a positive result as LaVine was complaining about the possibility of missing Game 5.

“Honestly, I think he was the most disappointed,” DeRozan said. “That disappointment outweighed everything else, no matter how he felt.”

Most Bulls players and staff have not been tested for months under NBA protocol, which Donovan says allows people to wait 90 days after testing positive or receiving a booster shot to start testing again. The policy does not change after individual team members have passed positive tests.

Bulls Assistant Coaches Chris Fleming and Damian Kotter missed games 1 and 2 after testing positive the week before the series started. At the time, according to Donovan, most Bulls players and coaches were not required to participate in a regular testing cadence due to previous positive tests or revaccinations. Donovan did not need to take a test even after his assistant coaches tested positive.

With Alex Caruso in Concussion Protocol, the Bulls would lose two opening games in the decider. Caruso received an accidental punch to the face from the Bucks’ Jevon Carter in the second quarter of Game 4. He remained symptomatic Tuesday and was not allowed to train or travel with the team to Milwaukee.

Donovan will likely release Kobe White and newcomer Ayo Dosunma, while Caruso and Lavina will come out. Both made their playoff debuts in that series and scored 32.4 minutes and 9.3 points per game.

The Bucks will also be understaffed after starting forward Chris Middleton sprained the MCL in his left knee during Game 2. But with the Bulls already on edge after two brutal home losses, the Bucks will take their home court by an extreme margin. . to end the series.

The potential lack of experience in the Bulls’ starting lineup only adds to the responsibility of DeRozan and Vucevic. The Bulls’ bench offered little in this series – averaging 14.3 points in first four games — which could leave the veteran duo isolated under suffocating pressure from the Bucks.

“Obviously more and more will fall on DeMar and me,” Vucevic said. “To be more aggressive, to take more hits or create more opportunities for others, to make decisions. But at the same time, we also need to continue to play according to our style of play and make sure we get everyone involved.”