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Wolves lose Zach LaVine to season-ending knee injury

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (8) drives in the second quarter against the Brooklyn Nets guard Randy Foye (2) at Target Center in Minneapolis on Jan. 28, 2017. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Just as it seemed the young Timberwolves were starting to put things together, they lost one of the largest pieces of their puzzle.

Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine is out for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the team announced Saturday.

LaVine injured the knee during Friday night’s game in Detroit with what was deemed to be a left knee bruise, only to have an MRI reveal the ACL tear on Saturday.

The injury most likely occurred in the third quarter, when LaVine drove into the lane and rose up in an attempt to score. He collided with Pistons center Andre Drummond, twisted and landed awkwardly on his right knee before going to the ground and grabbing his left leg.

Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said LaVine received a medical evaluation after the incident, then told Thibodeau he felt fine and could play. LaVine did return to the game for a few minutes, but the next time he cut, he recognized something didn’t feel right.

“But there is no way to know (when it happened) for sure,” Thibodeau said. “It was an awkward landing on that play, so I don’t know.”

Karl-Anthony Towns was by LaVine’s side throughout the plane ride home, and at that point LaVine knew something didn’t feel right.

When Towns got the news of LaVine’s injury Saturday morning, he cried.

“That’s not just a teammate, that’s my brother. That’s one of my best friends,” Towns said. “For him to have to go through that, that hurts me a lot.”

LaVine, a core member of Minnesota’s youth moment along with Towns and Andrew Wiggins, was averaging 19 points, three rebounds and three assists per game this season, while shooting 39 percent from the three-point line.

This season marked a major rise in LaVine’s game from young, talented player with massive potential and the propensity to throw down awe-inspiring dunks to an all-around talent ready to lead the Wolves’ revival.

From providing Minnesota’s outside shooting threat to staying on the court to serve as the primary scorer with the reserves on the court, LaVine was an integral part of what the Wolves were doing. To see Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s faith in LaVine, look no further than the third-year guard’s playing time. LaVine was tied for third in the NBA in minutes — knotted with Wiggins — averaging 37.2 a game.

“He’s made himself into one of the best ‘two’ guards in the league. His overall game has really blossomed,” Thibodeau said. “He’s shooting the three great. The free throws, the drives. All of it.

“He put so much work into this season, to have the type of season he had going,” Thibodeau said. “So that’s really what you feel for.”

LaVine’s evolution has received national attention, as shown Saturday when LeBron James made a point to share his condolences on social media.

“Don’t know you personally but love your talent homie,” James tweeted. “Have a healthy and speedy recovery (Zach LaVine)!! Minor setback (for a) major comeback.”

That comeback will officially start when LaVine has surgery to repair his ACL. That date is still to be determined.

Brandon Rush knows all too well what happens next. Rush, who started in LaVine’s place Saturday against Memphis, has twice recovered from ACL tears.

“You have your up-and-down days,” Rush said. “He has to put in that work, and fight it out til he gets back. … It’s hard. It’s real hard. It’s probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my career, bounce back from that second one. It took me a good two years. But Zach is young, 21 years old, so his body recovers at a different pace. And he’ll be back 100 percent next year.”

Rush planned on calling LaVine on Sunday morning just to see where his head is at. Thibodeau was with LaVine when he received the news Saturday.

“Just like you would expect, initially (he was) very disappointed,” Thibodeau said, “but already talking about how he wants to get ready for the rehab, and start working, and prepare to come back.”

Thibodeau has lauded LaVine’s work ethic many times. LaVine is the prototypical gym rat, one of the main factors in the rise to his current stature. That work ethic figures to serve him well in the months to come.

“He’s been in great spirits all day,” Towns said. “I see him nothing but coming back (with) even more bounce than before he got hurt. He’ll be able to jump higher, which is ridiculous to think about. He’ll be even more explosive, even quicker.”

“(It’s) really disappointing,” Thibodeau said. “But he’ll respond, and he’ll come back better than ever.”

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.