Nikola Vucevic led the Bulls with 25 points while Chicago got key contributions from Lauri Markkanen (16 points) and Denzel Valentine (13 points) off the bench to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-96 on Saturday. Chicago ends a five-game losing skid. Cleveland guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland leds the Cavs with 22 points each. The Bulls (23-33) will travel to Boston to take on the Celtics (31-26) on Monday night.
Call it the Curious Case of Lauri Markkanen.
He's born into the NBA a veteran. Though barely 20, he set an NBA record three games into his career for most threes in that span. Three months later he was in the hallowed space of Madison Square Garden showered with applause and acclaim for leading his young team with 33 points and eight threes. He was All-Rookie first team.
Markkanen quickly settled into his prime in his second season, averaging almost 20/10 for the season with a month long stretch averaging 26.5 points and 12.6 rebounds, wins with 31 and 18 over Brooklyn, 35 and 15 over Boston and 31 and 17 over Atlanta.
Then seeming to grow in NBA years backwards, Markkanen in Year 3 became a stolid spot-up shooter, averaging career lows in points and rebounds, his best game opening night followed by a steady crawl into a wall of disappointment.
And now it's baby steps for Markkanen with the Bulls losing streak breaking 106-96 victory Saturday over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Markkanen after five consecutive single digit scoring games in which he averaged 4.4 points, scored 16 points and made the crucial shots in the third and fourth quarter that held off a sixth straight Bulls defeat.
Lauri Markkanen scored 16 points in the win, including a clutch three-pointer inside the final three minutes that helped hold off the Cavs.
Nikola Vucevic, with Zach LaVine out with NBA health and safety protocols, carried the Bulls with 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Denzel Valentine added 13 points and Patrick Williams, admitting he's never been much of a scorer, added 12. Bulls coach Billy Donovan credited the players for intensified effort and commitment to help the Bulls hold onto a tie for 10th in the Eastern Conference at 23-33.
"I felt we gave incredible effort," said Donovan. "We played with that urgency; we had that desperation. We were moving around, we were trying to cover for each other. When balls went up on the backboard, we were trying to get them. When balls got on the floor, we were in there trying to scramble. I thought our guards battled over top of screens. I thought there was a resistance and a persistency there."
Plus, the Bulls slowed the pace even more to keep the speedier Cavs out of transition. Cleveland had just six fast break points and though Collin Sexton and Darius Garland each had 22 points, it didn't appear either ever knew the other was on the court.
Many watching the Bulls have been saying that recently about this Benjamin Button of Basketball. The onetime wunderkind's deterioration as a player has been one of the mysteries of the team, if not the entire league. Since going to the bench at the end of March, Markkanen has been averaging fewer than half as many points, barely eight per game with seven of his last nine games in single digits including a zero points in 16 minutes against Memphis.
Sure, he's going from starting to a reserve role and the offense has focused more on newcomer Vucevic along with Zach LaVine until he was forced out of the lineup. Most curious, however, has been Markkanen's reverse from seemingly savvy veteran at 20 likened to Dirk Nowitzki to a player seemingly needing to learn the game's baby steps.
Whether it was some of Donovan's recent soliloquies about playing through adversity and learning to win or merely more opportunity without LaVine, Markkanen Saturday began to again look more like a pro.
He practically carried the Bulls through a stretch in the third quarter when the Bulls took their biggest lead at 75-59 and led 80-70 after three. In a 12-1 Bulls spurt, he drove and scored on a pullup, converted a pass from Vucevic for a score and rattled in a three. And then in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers came back from trailing 92-82 to get within three with 3:23 left in the game, Markkanen with the closing group made a three that started the Bulls on a 10-0 run with seven straight Vucevic points to avoid defeat.
"I think Lauri is a very talented and gifted player with a lot of length and size," said Donovan. "There's a lot he can do in the game besides being a stretch shooting guy. There have been plenty of guys like him in the league that are very one dimensional. He's young enough right now that I don't think he wants to be put in a box for himself or his career where he's just a catch-and-shoot guy. He's gotta be multi-dimensional and do more things. If his shot isn't falling, he has to do things on the defensive end of the floor and things on the backboard and run the floor to get easy baskets. He has to take opportunities inside of our offense to duck in and post up. I thought he did all those things today."
Billy Donovan speaks to the media following the Bulls' win over the Cavaliers on Saturday night.
Which raises both short and long term questions for the Bulls about just who is this guy.
When the seven-foot Markkanen came into the NBA, there were All-Rookie debates about who eventually would be better among he, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. After all, neither could rebound or really even shoot like Markkanen. With his size and shooting ability, Markkanen seemed the prototype of the new NBA. For two years he was. Two years afterward, he's about to become a restricted free agent losing his starting assignment and prime role in the offense.
But then Markkanen still has these times when he's the promising kid. But which way is he growing? To his prime or sub prime?
"We're trying to figure it out," the unshakeable Markkanan said after the game. "I think we had a lot of games we should've won and we weren't able to pull it off. That was combined with a little different role (for me). I try to stay as positive as I can. But then it's not really affecting me off the court. At the end of the day when I go home to my family, it's all good. I wasn't losing my sleep over it. It was frustrating to lose (my starting job), not being able to be out there and closing out games. But I try to be out there to support my teammates and continue to be as positive as I can. I always say, control what you can control. That's what I'm trying to do."
Markkanen's phlegmatic personality can appear to be either a positive to deal with pressure or a frustration to demand more motivation. He never expresses much anger or exasperation and is universally respected by teammates.
Highlights from Chicago's 106-96 win over Cleveland that snapped a five-game losing streak.
"One thing I would say about him, whether he plays good or bad, he's always team first," said rookie Williams. "He's always making the right play. Even if he isn't always scoring the ball or the ball isn't coming to him all the time. He's always out there making the right play and that's been big for us as a team."
As an aside, Williams, by the way, wasn't off to the side this time after also a long run of single digit scoring games. He scored with a clever euro step drive and turned another into a three-point play. Since he's 19, not that much is expected. But seeing his mature size and light movements, he always leaves you wanting much more. Williams admitted he hears it from teammates.
"The guys, my teammates have been, and also my coaches have been, challenging me to be more aggressive," Williams acknowledged. "They've been challenging me to do that pretty much the whole season. And it's no secret that's an area I need to improve in."
But this just may be who he is. After all, he only averaged about nine points per game his one year in college.
"Throughout my career, whether it's been high school or college, I've never been a prolific scorer," Williams admitted with knowing chuckle. "So when I'm not scoring, when shots aren't dropping, I know the defensive end is pretty much where I hang my hat. Find other ways to impact the game. Scoring is just one way, one small way of impacting the game. You can rebound, defend, get stops, get deflections. Or just talk, communicate and just provide energy. There are so many other opportunities to help us win or keep us in games or give us life out there on the court. So it doesn't really bother me when shots aren't dropping."
It doesn't seem to bother Markkanen, either, though until this season they mostly did drop.
"After the trades, obviously we changed our style of play a little bit," Markkanen explained. "So I think that's part of it, running different stuff and being in different spots on the floor. I know I always tell myself that I think I can be more aggressive when I catch the ball and just maybe sometimes the opportunity hasn't been there as much. Obviously, when you play less, it's obviously not as many opportunities as if you play 33 minutes. Yeah, I look myself and try to do whatever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do it.
"It's a new role," Markkanen added. "I think a lot of guys have sacrificed. It's a new role for me out there on the floor. I'm not going to do anything that jeopardizes the team. I'm going to play my role as well as I can. I think in the last games, I could've done a better job. I'm just trying to focus on staying positive and bringing the energy off the bench. The opportunity is going to be there. Like tonight, I think I got good looks. And it's more shots than I've gotten the last couple games. So I'm glad I could knock some of them down."
So were the Bulls with the lost Cavaliers suddenly closer to the Bulls in 13th than the ninth place Pacers.
And then it looked worse with the Cavaliers the aggressors to start with a 15-9 lead that had Donovan seeing 130 or so for the visitors.
Nikola Vucevic led the Bulls with 25 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in the win over Cleveland.
The Bulls recovered to take a 29-24 lead after one quarter. Though the changes look to be sticking. The bench ended with a huge 45-15 margin and it appears Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky are back there. Satoransky returned after missing the Memphis game with illness and it looks like Daniel Theis will continue to start with Vucevic to give Young more facilitating opportunities with the second units. Theis had two clutch fourth quarter threes. The Bulls again had 30 assists led by nine for Coby White.
After a big scoring game against Memphis Friday, White was two of 10 for eight points as he was harassed all game by Cavs tough rookie defender Isaac Okoro. But Donovan said he appreciated the versatility.
"The two guys I'm really really proud about are Lauri and Coby," said Donovan. "Particularly for the fact that Coby, I think he had 27 points last night and then he comes back tonight and he can't make a shot. But I thought he made winning basketball plays. I thought he did a good job running the team, he took care of the ball, he got us in and out of stuff. I thought he competed like crazy on the ball."
It was 49-47 Cavaliers at halftime before Markkanen led the team in scoring in the third quarter and made the big shot when it came in the fourth. Like that kid we once knew who this time played like a wise old man.