The Bulls just might next be doing testimonials for the Chamber of Commerce. After all, no one was happier than the Bulls to be in Cleveland in January.
That's because the Bulls declared 10 was enough, and enough finally was enough, with a 104-88 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. No matter that almost half the Cavs roster and most of the presumed starters were injured or dismissed. The Bulls and bad have walked together this calendar year, so the Bulls badly needed this one after 10 consecutive losses, rookie Wendell Carter Jr. undergoing thumb surgery Monday and likely out the rest of the season, and much of the young roster looking more like they were suffering from osteoporosis.
But the Bulls snapped back in the Martin Luther King Jr. games with 25 points from Zach LaVine, 15 points off the bench from Bobby Portis and 13 points each from Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, the latter also with nine assists and a team high plus/minus rating.
It wasn't quite a breakout game for the rangy 6-4 point guard from Providence. But it was providential and perhaps did help save Dunn from a breakdown—or spending even more time breaking down film of his latest flaws—following four of his last five games scoring six points with 29 percent shooting in that stretch of games.
"I think we had good energy," said Dunn. "I think both sides played well, the first unit and the second unit. I just kept grinding through the slump. Just kept coming in, being positive, staying consistent through my work; it's part of the NBA. I got the same looks I've been getting previous games and today I knocked them down. Gets the monkey off our backs. It sucks to lose 10 in a row. It's frustrating. Now, we can breathe a little bit and try to build from it, try to get a win Wednesday at home."
The Bulls went to 11-36 and now have the third poorest record in the NBA with the Knicks losing. The Cavs are at the bottom at 9-39. Many are looking at those records in consideration of the next NBA draft. But for the Bulls, it's more about production, pace and some pizazz from their core of young players.
There was a pulse Monday, though Markkanen still wasn't involved quite enough. But Chandler Hutchison did have a spirited (new favorite team adjective) game with eight points and nine rebounds. Hutchison didn't shoot much, but in flashes he shows flashes of a Scottie Pippen style of play with long strides and sensational finishes at the basket. Hutchison may also be the best on the team—which is actually how Pippen grew into the championship team point forward—on accelerating the pace of play on offense. He's just not particularly adept yet at passing and finding teammates on the run.
"When he starts galloping up the floor, I love it," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "He just has a feel for the ball; he's a multiple ballhandler for us, which we needed. He gives us the pace in transition. What we have to do better is when he handles it, we have to run better with him. That's something we we are talking about. We are learning how to play with him and he is learning how to play with us."
That's the sort of thing this season is supposed to be about now after the plethora of early season injuries and coaching change. It's just that a double digit losing streak distracts from that and changes the priorities, at least for a win.
It's been a difficult stretch for a young Bulls team playing in the Western Conference. But there's a little break now with Atlanta Wednesday and then Cleveland again Sunday. Five of the Bulls 11 wins were against Cleveland, Atlanta, New York and Phoenix. Not so great for draft lottery position, but at least it demonstrates the Bulls have more young talent than those teams. That's generally considered a positive.
Getting that young talent to show its talent has been the goal, and the issue at times. The Cavaliers were without Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, John Henson, Larry Nance and David Nwaba. So it wasn't exactly a final exam. But the Bulls got some good grades from this one
"We talked about first quarter starts," said Boylen. "I thought our energy and our spirit in that first quarter was good; kind of gave us momentum into the rest of the game. I thought we got a lot from a lot of guys and the flow, the tempo was good for us. Rolo (Lopez) had a couple of key buckets we needed. I thought Kris Dunn was very good. He was in rhythm. His pace was good. He made good decisions and I thought Zach was real efficient, which we need him to be. Jabari (Parker) made two big plays for us to start the (fourth) that I thought were huge buckets to try to maintain the lead. I thought the ball was moving pretty well, I thought we were finding the open guys. I really thought our defense set the tone."
The Bulls were good defensively, though not so good that they forced the Cavs into that zero for nine start. By then it was 7-0 Bulls, and the Bulls never would trail. They led 31-18 after the first quarter and the Cavs were never much closer than the Bulls 48-42 half-time lead.
The Bulls took control again to start the third quarter with a 16-6 run, and it was the often neglected Parker with all of his 10 points in a 14-2 run to start the fourth quarter that broke open the game, this time the opposition giving in late amidst a 21-point Bulls lead.
Which despite the victory also served to emphasize the Parker conundrum.
Perhaps no one on the team is more efficient offensively than Parker. He had 10 points in 12 minutes, and in the last five game since his last banishment, he has an amazing 65 points in just 83 minutes. He's not exactly sprinting back on defense or always engaged, but the Bulls also are trying to practice winning with improvement. Lopez is back at starting center with Carter's injury, and Lopez always competes seriously on both ends. Juts not that expeditiously. He's added a nifty drop step move and is at least attempting some threes. He had eight points and nine rebounds to match Hutchison for team high. The Bulls had a 50-38 rebounding advantage, which enhances pace.
But the Bulls opened the game with the first play for Lopez. It made sense from a basketball standpoint of attempting to establish inside play, which Phil Jackson did in the 1990s through Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley. They didn't get many shots; but they did get early shots.
Some of the disconnect with Parker is the notion he probably isn't part of the future. But then neither is Lopez supposed to be. Parker ranks with only LaVine and Markkanen on the team in a combination of being able to get your own shot, which is LaVine's strength, and an ability to make tough threes, which both LaVine and Markkanen do. Yet Parker barely played until the fourth quarter, and then he carried the offense.
LaVine bounced back, but his interruption in scoring seemed more institutional. He just wasn't getting shots. LaVine is too good to defer, which he seemed to be doing. He's too talented to be harnessed no matter his flaws. The Bulls were 15 of 30 on threes for the game and LaVine was three of six. He's averaged barely more than four threes attempted per game with the return of players from injury after averaging about six previously. He's too good a shooter to defer too much, especially when the Bulls are last in the league in attempting threes.
Similarly with Markkanen, who was three of five on threes against the Cavs. He should attempt 10 per game as good as he shoots. But the Bulls still have trouble getting him enough good shots. Though the Bulls pace up court was better.
"I told my guys, and I did it last game, too; I'm going to push the pace even more," Dunn said. "I feel like we have some good athletes out there. Zach, Hutch; especially when Hutch is running the floor, he opens up a lot of things. I'm going to push the pace now."
It's a departure from the slow down tempo pursued when Boylen took over from Fred Hoiberg. The Bulls still walk into numerous possessions, though there were more Dunn attempts to speed up. But there's a difference between playing faster and moving the ball. The ball still tends to become glued to Bulls players as they watch a dribble hand off or screen/roll. It still results in too many late clock shots, though to be fair it's difficult to develop that kind of chemistry and continuing on offense and defense given the current circumstances of post-injury without a training camp.
The Bulls had more moments Monday with Portis breaking out his three ball with three in consecutive possessions spanning the first and second quarters and Dunn throwing a perfectly timed lob pass to LaVine for a slam dunk. The Bulls rarely make those plays. Markkanen had a pair of third quarter threes and a tough, hanging jumper in the lane, Dunn got into the lane for a pair of steals and a run out score, and LaVine had a late spurt of scoring after steals.
LaVine's been running ahead, which the staff has asked him to do, though the Bulls under Jackson solved that problem with Pippen. Could the Bulls eventually do so with Hutchison?
Michael Jordan, as many recall, was an excellent scorer. Jordan agreed, and wasn't always confident in his teammates' similar abilities. So Jordan would hang back to get the ball inbounded after a basket or the handoff after a miss. That slowed the offense. It wasn't until Pippen developed into a capable distributor, which took a few seasons, before Jordan developed that trust and confidence and the Bulls offense expanded for others—my supporting cast, as Jordan liked to say—with Pippen running and the Bulls offense flowing. Can Hutchison be that guy?
He's been hesitant thus far, but even Pippen never started as a rookie until the playoffs. Though Pippen never was as hesitant as Hutchison to shoot. Pippen as a 22-year-old rookie after four years of college had plenty of poor games when he was invisible on offense. He had a dozen games with one score or none. Hutchison often draws physical comparisons to Pippen. Is he just now starting to bloom? Or did he just start moving more quickly to get a running start out of Cleveland?