Sometimes you've been wondering lately with the Bulls what's the point with the coaching shakeup, player uneasiness, losses in multiple countries and in 10 of the last 11 games. But Saturday in the Bulls impressive comeback 98-93 win over the San Antonio Spurs, the Bulls may have gotten a lot closer to knowing who is the point.
Because it was Kris Dunn back starting for the first time since his early season knee injury with a team high 24 points including the Bulls' last six of the game that improbably rallied the Bulls from a 21-point third quarter deficit.
With Zach LaVine back in Chicago treating an ankle injury and Jabari Parker out of the playing rotation, Lauri Markkanen added 23 points, Ryan Arcidiacono had 12 and Robin Lopez 10 off the bench. Bobby Portis had nine points, including a runner to give the Bulls a 92-91 lead with 1:39 remaining. It was the Bulls first lead since two minutes into the game. Portis then blocked a Rudy Gay drive on a second chance before Dunn added a floater with 38.8 seconds left for a 94-91 Bulls lead.
DeMar DeRozan with 21 points then scored a baseline reverse on a sweet out of bounds play. The Bulls called time with 23.3 seconds left and 17 on the shot clock. Dunn then hit yet another pullup, elbow jumper for a 96-93 Bulls lead with 8.3 seconds left, Dunn then gesturing boldly and shouting toward the stands and Spurs bench area. Dunn rebounded a missed Spurs three and was fouled for a pair of free throws to assure the most unlikely of victories.
"He (Dunn) has proven last year and then tonight that he can close," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "That's important when you can find a closer. I also thought Lauri was back to himself. He had his legs underneath him, he made some plays off the bounce, he made threes (three of eight), he made a turnaround shot (to tie at 90 with 2:13 left), he made a post move and I am thankful he is feeling better. It looked like he was stronger tonight.
"He has toughness," Boylen added about Dunn. "He was a football player, which I love. I was a football player. He's competitive, he likes playing on the road. He wants to be great. He's learning how to close. This was a good win for us."
Pretty much any win would be with the Bulls going to 7-23. The Spurs led by LaMarcus Aldridge with 29 points and 12 rebounds, though just eight points in the second half, had their four-game winning streak stopped and dropped back to 15-15. It was a superior defensive effort for the Bulls after a weak first half, trailing 62-43 as the Spurs shot 59 percent.
But with early an third quarter disruption inspired by back to back Dunn steals, the Bulls with deflections, overplaying, active trapping help and a presence in the passing lanes forced the Spurs into turnovers in four of their first five second half possessions. That stalled a precision Spurs offense. Then led by Dunn with 10 third quarter points in a variety of drives and mid range jumpers, the Bulls hit the Spurs with an 18-4 run and were back in the game.
It was 78-74 San Antonio after three quarters, but it was the Bulls who looked like the veteran team this time down the stretch.
"We've just got to finish games," said Dunn. "Even when we were injured between me, Lauri, Bobby, they were in games early in the season and we just have to finish. "Tonight was one of the times when we finished the game."
And that was behind the play of Dunn, whose injuries and inconsistencies have led to questions about whether the Bulls have or need a point guard. As the Bulls attempt to develop a core roster, the belief has been they have a shooting guard in LaVine, power forward in Markkanen and center in Wendell Carter Jr., the latter who still is struggling with fouls and had eight points and two rebounds.
Point guard is perhaps the most important position in the NBA these days, but the Bulls have been unable to make a judgment on Dunn with his many absences. Then he came back tentative from injury, though just in two games, and some wondered if Boylen was testing or challenging him by using him as a reserve.
Arcidiacono despite his relentless hustle, had not been shooting or scoring well lately. But he remained in the starting lineup with Dunn opening with him. The front court was the same, and it was clear Boylen was employing the players who he believed would defend the most and best.
Thus Shaquille Harrison, who hasn't made a shot in two games, was early off the bench with Lopez. Often, the Bulls had lineups with barely one or two natural scorers. And Justin Holiday was off, making just one of 12 shots. Though Markkanen was more active than he has been as Boylen put in more movement and post plays for him.
"I just tried to be aggressive," said Markkanen, who joined the group rebounding effort with seven that effectively matched the Spurs total. "I know I haven't been playing at my own level lately, so I know at the same time it takes time to get back. But I feel I am kind of getting my legs back; obviously, it's easier to drive when you feel quicker.
"It shows a lot of heart from the team to climb back," added Markkanen. "Obviously, it takes a lot of energy to dig yourselves a hole and then we've got to climb back up, but it just shows what we can do. If we play like that as a team, we have a chance to beat anybody."
Dunn, for his part, generally is oblique when he speaks with media and is quick to defer credit. Which is something of a point guard trait, to set up others. Dunn isn't a high assist player, and defenses play off him since he doesn't shoot threes well. He came up about three feet short on one. But he's much improved from last season as a finisher at the basket and has an uncanny ability to come off a screen and find a shot in the lane.
Plus, he's a relentless defender and playing with Arcidiacono the Bulls vastly cut down on their turnovers with just nine in the game for 10 Spurs points. Especially with LaVine out, perhaps for a week or more as he will be evaluated this week and Parker maybe on the way out, Dunn and Markkanen will be relied upon to score consistently. Though Boylen's style seems obviously to play slower, keeping the team in games with defense and then trying to squeeze out a game down the stretch.
Dunn had a series of strong finishes when the Bulls win 10 of 12 this time last year, and he had a good start Saturday of beginning to repeat that.
"I thought we fought well," said Dunn. "We kept guarding the second half and executed in the fourth quarter. It shows what we are capable of. Wendell, Rolo, they set great screens and a lot of us could make plays. I think multiple people hit big time shots tonight, Bobby's floater toward the end of the game was a big time shot, Lauri, his fadeaway was a big time shot, Arch with his three (to get within 89-88 with 3:30 left) was a big time shot. Justin had a three pointer in the corner where he got fouled and he hit his free throws (with 6:17 left). I think everybody just made great plays.
"My team believes in me and it was a great team win," said the rangy 6-4 guard. "But I think we have multiple guys with that (tough) mentality. Bobby, Shaq, Justin, he has it too. He's just not as vocal as me and Bobby when it comes to it, but he's one of our best defenders. Wendell's got it, too. He made some big plays on the defensive end. It was a great team win to get that monkey off our back."
It's been, obviously, a difficult time for the team and players, and it looked more of the same with that first half and the Spurs scoring first to open the second half. But Boylen stayed with his group, and the Bulls responded this time.
"I give Chicago a lot of credit," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "Coach Boylen had them ready and the character and fortitude they showed being down at half by 19, or whatever it was, is a real tribute to what they are trying to establish in Chicago. Their defense took us out of things. We turned it over because of their pressure. The ball stopped moving, and at the right time they started making some shots down the stretch, which is always helpful. They deserve a lot of credit and that's a real tough loss for us."
Which is the real point. It was the other guy pointing to the deficiencies this time.