Otto Porter Jr. always had a dream. It had big shoulders, was stormy, husky, brawling. It's his kind of town.
"I'm still getting use to the wind and the coldness, but it's not going to be like that for long," Porter was saying after the Bulls 109-107 victory Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. "The city is beautiful. I always wanted to be in Chicago when I was younger. It's been great."
And so has Porter, and so against the Grizzlies was Zach LaVine with 30 points and Lauri Markkanen with 22 points and 10 rebounds, the dynamic offensive duo combining for 14 consecutive Bulls fourth quarter points in the crucial and decisive stretch when the Bulls went from leading 86-85 with six minutes left to 101-94 with just over two minutes remaining.
From there, the Bulls with a saving Porter block on a Memphis two-on-one break and fighting off a Justin Holiday three pointer to tie went on to win their fourth in the last five to raise their record to 17-45. Memphis dropped to 24-39.
Though perhaps more significantly, the Bulls are 5-2 in games Porter has played with Porter and Kris Dunn Wednesday returning from absences, Porter with a leg strain and Dunn with migraine headaches. Dunn played one of his better floor games with nine points and four assists, and Ryan Arcidiacono in relief had 12 points. The alternating point guards combined for six assists without a turnover in 38 minutes. LaVine also remained a signifiant playmaker equaling Dunn for team high with four assists.
Markkanen, despite a quiet first half with two points on one of five shooting, finished with his 10th consecutive game of at least 20 points and nine rebounds, a mark reached this season only by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Markkanen fought his way to the free throw line for a game best eight of nine. Markkanen finished February, the Bulls best month with a 5-6 record, averaging 26.4 points and 12.4 rebounds. LaVine, meanwhile, continued his impressive all around play, averaging for the month 23.9 points, but also ranking among the top shooting guards with six assists and 5.4 rebounds.
Though the group takes on the look of a Big Three with the return presence of Porter.
"He settles us down," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said about Porter. "He's poised, he makes a big shot when we need it, he gets a big steal in a gap; he got two gap steals that changed that fourth quarter. We're thankful for him."
Porter doesn't do the spectacular like LaVine, who raised up for back to back threes midway through the fourth quarter to give the Bulls their first big cushion in a game with 20 lead changes and 15 ties. LaVine then closed his personal run of eight straight points finishing a slam dunk on a steal by Porter and outlet pass for the breakaway.
Those high flying Bulls—remember them? OK, maybe not—had 30 fast break points.
"I thought Zach played really well," said Boylen. "Be an efficient scorer in this league, make the correct play at the proper time with great discernment, and I thought he did that."
Boylen added that the team had to feature Markkanen more after the first half. Markkanen, to his credit, took the challenge with three scores to open the second half after the teams were tied at 46-46. That little run gave the Bulls a 54-48 lead that the Grizzlies trimmed to 75-74 after three quarters.
Boylen would play Dunn the entire fourth quarter after Dunn had been uncertain in games before his migraine absence.
"I thought that Kris Dunn played his best half of the season," said Boylen. "I thought he had a feel for the game, I thought he knew what we are doing; he was in command of our offense. We milked Lauri, we milked Zach, we got Otto going a little bit. I thought we ‘brother-in-lawed' pretty good."
No, I didn't know what that meant, either, but it is probably something.
There was something else Boylen was doing that is worth following.
With Dunn stumbling recently and Arcidiacono playing well with the starters, the rotations might bear watching. Boylen removed Dunn early in both the first and third quarters, bringing him back to start the second and fourth quarters to play with the reserves. It's not a bad idea because it gives Dunn a chance to play against second line players and perhaps regain some confidence, though he doesn't seem to lack any in interviews.
"I just go out there to do what I do," Dunn said. "I feel like I'm a top defender in this league, for sure."
Is seems like a test run to see how Dunn would play with a reserve unit that might require more scoring and leadership than playing with the starters.
Clearly, the Bulls aren't ready to declare their lineup of the future. Though it is clear that Boylen is playing for wins. Which could be intriguing with the upcoming Friday/Sunday set with the Atlanta Hawks, who have the fifth poorest record in the league, just ahead (behind) the Bulls for potential draft position.
Against Memphis with Porter and Dunn back, Boylen went essentially with an eight-player rotation with Robin Lopez going 40 minutes, the most he's played in a game since January of last season.
Basketball archeologists may reexamine this game centuries later to wonder just how the Grizzlies did it, holding the electric Lopez to just four points amidst his run of averaging almost 20 points this month. He has been a rockin' Robin, rockin' in the treetops all day long, hoppin' and boppin' and singing his songs. Though game changer that he is these days, Lopez did have five blocks. No, no, not in here!
Porter added three blocks along with three steals, and for a player who doesn't appear like he is moving that fast, Porter sure gets a lot of things done.
He joined LaVine and Markkanen in scoring at least 20 points with his 20 with three of six threes. And even coming off injury, Porter got the Bulls started with six of their first 10 points in what was a 20-20 first quarter.
Though it's been more than the numbers.
Porter seems to have filled a vital need. Not just at small forward where the Bulls tried out Holiday until he was dealt, Wayne Selden Jr., Jabari Parker and Chandler Hutchison, the latter remaining out with a foot injury. Porter more than his location on the floor is a player who can help open the court with shooting, seems in control with a myriad of abilities to make shots, defend and produce at crucial times.
Sure it's Memphis, who is getting rid of about everything but it's blue suede shoes and was led by Avery Bradley with 23 points and Joakim Noah off the bench with 12 points. But with Porter combining with LaVine and Markkanen, the outline of a competitive team begins to come into focus.
Porter also had back to back blocks in consecutive first quarter possessions when the Bulls took that early lead along with three steals by Selden. Then it was LaVine taking charge with that all-world athletic ability. Sometimes he's such a blur, like late in the second quarter when he drove from the top of the key for a dunk, that defenders seem to have difficulty even reacting. He added an emphatic slam dunk and Arcidiacono closed the first half with a floater on a drive as he's begun to look more to score.
Then it was Markkanen to open the third quarter and then combining with LaVine to get the fourth quarter margin that was enough to hold off Memphis. Often overlooked is those three and four baskets midway through the fourth that enable a team to avoid having to find a dramatic late score.
And now the Bulls appear to have three very capable contributors when it's needed.
"I feel good, just a little winded," Porter said after missing Monday's Milwaukee loss. "That's how it is when you missed a game in a couple of days. The ball went in. That's all that matters. The shot was feeling good. I had my legs up under me. We got out in transition a couple of times. We are growing each and every game. We're trying to build for the future and trying to start something new. This is a good organization. Right now, we're just focused on the future."
One perhaps with broader shoulders. Building, breaking, rebuilding. It's a city tradition.