Javonte Green holds strong as injuries decimate the Chicago Bulls at power forward: ‘You’ve got to try to touch the ceiling’

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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Hours before the Chicago Bulls tipped off against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, Javonte Green had a basket to himself in the corner of the team’s training facility at the Advocate Center.

Green methodically worked his way around the interior of the arc, snapping his wrist through jump shots while an assistant coach fielded his rebounds. The solitude of the shooting drill wasn’t accidental — after returning Monday from a monthlong absence because of a groin injury, Green now shoulders the responsibility of his position group.

With Patrick Williams (left wrist) still months away from being cleared to play, Green is the sole remainder of the top-three power forwards on the Bulls roster after Derrick Jones Jr. fractured his right index finger in practice Tuesday. The position took on a greater burden for the already undersized Bulls; now, Green is the main component in the paint to complement center Nikola Vučević.

For Green, getting the ball back in his hands comes as a relief — regardless of the circumstances.

“Sitting on the sidelines game after game, it took a toll on me,” Green said.

The injury to Jones dealt another blow to a Bulls team stuck in a state of scrambling because of injuries. Jones will be sidelined for six to eight weeks, although the Bulls’ news release noted Jones could “potentially return earlier” — the finger he broke is on his non-shooting hand, which could allow him to play with a protective splint.

Jones is the third injured Bulls player this week to enter that same timetable. Alex Caruso underwent right wrist surgery Monday and Lonzo Ball will undergo meniscus surgery in his left knee by the end of the week. But before Jones’ fracture, the returns of Green and star Zach LaVine on Monday in a 111-110 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder had given the Bulls some hope.

The constant cycle of injury and absence has forced a focus on resilience.

“We just worked so hard to be whole this year and it’s always been one or two guys down,” Green said. “We’ve got to take it on the chin. We can’t do anything about it.”

Defense quickly became a sticking point for the Bulls throughout a recent 3-7 skid. Green is now a focal point of the defense in the absence of Caruso and Ball, the team’s leading defensive specialists.

At 6-foot-5, Green is agile enough to guard the perimeter while still matching up in the paint with centers. His versatility allows coach Billy Donovan to adapt his defensive strategy with Green on the floor.

“You can definitely feel his presence, his energy, his athleticism when he’s on the floor,” Donovan said.

For Green, the next few games will be be a balancing act between making an impact and following medical restrictions.

Team doctors started Green out with a 24-minute restriction for games against the Thunder and Raptors. Donovan carefully tracked Green’s time on the court to limit his rotations to five consecutive minutes. Donovan will be strategic with how he deploys Green.

When other recovering players such as Caruso earlier this season were given minutes restrictions, Donovan often brought them off the bench, but he returned Green immediately to the starting lineup. After the Thunder game, Donovan said he plans to ration Green’s early-game minutes to allow him more time to factor defensively into fourth quarters.

Although Green isn’t feeling any pain in his groin, Donovan said team doctors are wary of letting him feel fatigued, which could lead to re-injury.

“He only has one gear. He just plays all out,” Donovan said. “So he probably couldn’t play much more than four or five minutes at a time because when he goes out there, he gets his energy into the game.”

No matter how strictly Green’s minutes are monitored, however, nothing can keep him from soaring once he’s on the court.

It’s rare for Green to pass up a clean opportunity to dunk. Sometimes it backfires, jamming against the rim for an awkward ricochet or sending him toppling to the court. Green doesn’t care. He’ll try it again and again, launching himself skyward and attacking the basket as if it offended him personally.

Against the Thunder, Green saw an opening during a third-quarter transition breakaway. Alfonzo McKinnie pushed the ball ahead to Green, who took one dribble and two steps to dance inside his defender before rising up and bringing the ball down hard enough to rattle the rim.

Even as he tumbled onto the court and into the base of the basket, Green didn’t have any regrets. If he’s healthy enough on the court, Green figures he’s healthy enough to go all out — never mind those restrictions.

“If I can touch the ceiling, you’ve got to try to touch the ceiling to know what you can do,” Green said.

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