Lauri Markkanen has been central to the Bulls hopes for a recovery and return to competitiveness in this rebuilding chapter of their story.
And now perhaps as a center for a happy ending as the Finnish seven footer helped lead a furious finish for the Bulls that barely failed, a 122-117 loss Tuesday to the Brooklyn Nets.
Closing the game at center with a resurgent Jabari Parker at power forward, the Bulls had one of their most electric quarters of the season, matching the high scoring Nets big shot for big shot, Markkanen with eight points in the last three minutes after failing to get a shot attempt the last five minutes of Sunday's loss to Cleveland. With Parker adding 12 fourth quarter points and making all six of his shots, Zach LaVine with a team high 26 points and Markkanen with a career high 19 rebounds to go with 18 points, the Bulls showed the offensive potential they'd long talked about without demonstrating.
"I thought we battled, hung around, hung around, tried to put three stops together to try to take the lead," sighed Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "Never quite got over the hump, but I thought we hung in there. I thought fourth quarter we had a couple of loose ball situations where we knocked it loose but couldn't get it. Those were big plays down the stretch. Won the boards and we won points in the paint; we've got to make a few more plays."
Though the Bulls made many of them, like Parker with tough, physical power moves inside for scores, Markkanen with an unlikely high arcing three with 37.3 seconds left after the Nets went ahead by eight, Parker with a nifty drop pass to Bobby Portis earlier in the fourth quarter for a score, Boylen going with more potential playmakers down the stretch and emphasizing the team's scoring potential.
"Jabari was playing well, had a nice groove offensively, was making some toughness plays," Boylen acknowledged.
Parker with 22 points in 23 minutes scored at least 20 points for the first time since he was removed from the rotation in mid December.
"Lauri at five gives him even more room to operate down there," noted Boylen. "I think we had moments where we had Zach going. I thought Zach was terrific in that first half; kind of dominated the game for eight, 10 minutes. Moments we had Lauri going, Jabari going. But we can't turn the ball over (18 times for 20 points) and we have to win those 50/50 balls, and we didn't do that. We have to put it all together."
The Bulls haven't done that much, especially lately as they have been swallowed up in their own vortex of defeat, 14 losses in the last 15 games to fall to 11-40. The surprising, playoff bound Nets are 28-24. But now scoring at least 100 points in the last 13 games, the Bulls are starting to show the sort of offense that favors their young players.
Especially Markkanen, who was set back by a serious elbow injury in training camp in late September. He didn't return until Dec. 1 and often played tentatively, perhaps favoring his elbow. But in the last seven games, Markkanan has again been showing the confidence and assertiveness that marked his impressive rookie debut.
Markkanen Tuesday even tried a power dunk over giant Nets center Jarrett Allen and used his size to create mismatches. He also took the ball off the backboard several times to initiate a quicker Bulls offense, he and Parker often being most effective at that.
"Jabari is off the charts," commended LaVine. "He doesn't get his due justice; he's unstoppable in the paint. Hopefully, we'll get more of that."
The Bulls clearly are getting more from Markkanen, who is averaging 19.1 points and 10.7 rebounds over the last seven games with three double/doubles in that stretch, 34 rebounds in the last two games. Markkanen is shooting 46 percent on threes the last seven games with at least three made in each of the last eight games. He's still being forced into too many difficult shots when the offense slows, but he seemed to have more space and advantages playing center late in the game.
That also enables Parker or Portis to join a more offensive oriented, shooting lineup that spaces the floor better more in line with the modern NBA game. It also should enable the Bulls to attempt more three pointers, a flaw in their recent game.
It also gives the Bulls an opportunity next season when Wendell Carter Jr. returns from injury to switch up the two big men with Carter playing some power forward, where he says he's more comfortable. Carter said he would concentrate on extending his shooting range when he begins workouts again.
"I've never played as a center, but I do think that's one part of the game I can add," Markkanen said. "Obviously, the game has changed. I feel you have to be able to shoot in the NBA now. It's a different look when you have all five guys (who can shoot); they have to make changes and then we can have a mismatch somewhere else. It gives us a different look. It's one thing we can work on. I try to do whatever I can to help the team.
"I think I had a mismatch at the five to step out and stretch the floor," Markkanen added. "Obviously, we can get better at it and have an advantage to play that position."
The Bulls didn't defend as well late as the Nets outscored the Bulls 39-38 in the fourth quarter. But the Bulls shot 50 percent for the game to the Nets 44.7 percent. Both teams shot at least 60 percent in an entertaining fourth quarter. The Bulls have talked a lot about defense and toughness and commitment and spirit and such since Boylen replaced Fred Hoiberg as coach in December. And defending is vital. But it has to be mixed, especially in this NBA era, with a high level offensive component. Perhaps more of the gifted seven footer at center—a skilled big man who also excels at rebounding in space—is a tactic that will give the Bulls the edge this time.
It was a desolate start for both teams, a combined zero for 13 shooting stretch by both teams in the first quarter and 11-8 Bulls in the first 6:30. But there were continuing signs of that Markkanen revival. Just before the Nets timeout when the Bulls took that lead, Markkanen ran down Rodions Kurucs on a breakaway for a block and made a three the other way. If it were LeBron James, ESPN would have broken into regular programming.
Markkanen added a two-hand slam dunk shortly afterward in a continuing show of early aggressiveness and LaVine followed with another as a trailer. But late turnovers with Kris Dunn struggling through a tough game enabled the Nets to take a 20-19 lead after one quarter despite shooting 27.6 percent.
Dunn had 15 points and shot six of 10, but had six turnovers without an assist. LaVine again led the Bulls in assists.
"Can't have 18 turnovers on the road," lectured Boylen. "If you win the boards and don't turn it over, you have a really good chance to win; we didn't do that."
The second quarter was an offensive thing of beauty for the Bulls with the best of LaVine, scoring 17 points on drives, pull-ups and the kind of tough shot making that makes him a special player at times. Parker also was instrumental moving the ball more quickly into the front court, not allowing the defenses to set.
Which also begs the question of where Parker would settle. He looked good in that spread lineup late in the game, but it's also just over week to the NBA trade deadline. And his uncertain and often diminishing status has led to considerable speculation about his future with the Bulls.
The Bulls took a 54-50 halftime lead. But the Bulls never could quite get a handle on the Nets perimeter as D'Angelo Russell, whom Boylen said is deserving of All-Star recognition, had 30 points and Shabazz Napier scored 24 off the bench with five of 10 threes. They combined for 20 third quarter points as the Nets took an 83-79 lead after three quarters.
The Nets were hanging onto a 100-97 lead with 6:31 left on a driving Dunn score when it appeared Wayne Selden made a steal that was called a foul after a Portis steal ended up in a block that could have been a foul. Boylen erupted and got his first technical foul as head coach and the Nets suddenly had a 107-101 lead. LaVine drove and found Markkanen for a three. But that's the closest the Bulls would get as the Bulls lost Joe Harris for a three and the Nets closed out the game with nine of 10 free throws in the last minute. The Nets shot 40 free throws to 19 for the Bulls.
"It's tough when you are trying so hard to get a win," lamented LaVine. "Bounces don't go your way, calls don't go your way. You've got to dig yourself out of that hole, and we just didn't make enough plays. You have to give them credit; they've playing really well. We just have to do better."
Perhaps being a little more centered.