Jim Boylen late Friday was taking inventory of the Bulls 114-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team’s first after seven consecutive losses and first for the new Bulls head coach in his second game since replacing Fred Hoiberg. Boylen listed excellent shooting, 52 percent overall and 48 percent on threes with the timely defense that produced 15 steals and scored the Bulls 28 points on 22 Thunder turnovers, 10 for Russell Westbrook as part of his quadruple double.
Boylen itemized the assets like Zach LaVine with 25 points and Justin Holiday with 20 and three more steals to tie Holiday for the most games this season in the league with at least three steals. Boylen went out of his way to praise Jabari Parker with 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists, though he barely played Parker in the fourth quarter to use a defensive lineup with Shaquille Harrison and Chandler Hutchison that was pivotal in an almost five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter when the Bulls outscored Oklahoma City 14-2 to overcome a seven-point deficit.
“The thing I’m preaching is you have to do what helps the team win,” Boylen said as he also reveled with joy and relief, his family watching from the front row as the Bulls, now 6-20, beat their highest ranked team this season. “I’m going to go with the guys at the end of the game who I feel will help us win the game. That doesn’t mean somebody didn’t play well. Or somebody didn’t do the right thing.
“And that big Finnish kid isn’t bad, either,” Boylen said.
No, not bad at all.
Markkanen in his third game back from a serious right elbow injury in preseason scored 24 points on eight of 12 shooting with seven rebounds and three steals. But it was his play in the last 30 seconds of the game that not only saved the Bulls after a Dennis Schroder drive gave the Thunder a 110-109 lead, but it illustrated his value to the team, his impact in the NBA as a potential All-Star and explained why it’s so difficult without him.
First, Markkanen took a hand-off on the right wing from Ryan Arcidiacono with the Bulls trailing by one. The Thunder switched, which was a bad idea imitated by most NBA teams these days. So Schroder was on Markkanen. Markkanen dribbled left as he’s adept with both hands dribbling and shooting. Plus, he’s faster than usually anticipated and began to turn the corner into the middle past Schroder. So Westbrook, who tends to defend with a similar blind fury to the way he attacks the basket, dropped into the lane to help against Markkanen.
Markkanen had made four of eight threes, so his shooting forced Thunder defenders to move out to guard him. That opened more driving lanes as LaVine was 10 of 18 overall. But this time with the seven footer driving against Schroder, the defenders collapsed inside. Marklanen on the run pitched to the left wing to a wide open Holiday.
“Justin was open right there,” said Markkanen, clearly more open and relaxed with media than last year. “I’d rather take that than a fadeaway floater from the free throw line, so obviously that was the right play. I’m glad he made that.”
Holiday’s aim was true with 23.2 seconds left for a 112-110 Bulls lead in a terrific game with 15 lead changes and seven ties. It was Holiday’s continuing franchise record of 37 straight games with a three. Oklahoma City called timeout and Boylen marched to the middle of the floor to meet with his assistants, fist pumping all the way. Holiday was also enjoying the rare, of late, triumphant moment with a pantomime phone call. Dialing up the three?
“I knew we had to get a stop,” said Holiday. “I knew it wasn’t over, especially when you have guys like Russ and Paul (George).”
It was Westbrook, naturally, who also had 24 points on nine of 21 shooting, 17 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals, five fouls and those 10 turnovers in his usual hair-on-fire game.
The Thunder went to the front court to inbounds, which the Bulls weren’t doing. Boylen said he preferred dribbling up to help spread the court for the shooters. It did work.
George inbounded to Westbrook at the top of the key. Westbrook exploded left around a Steven Adams screen with Holiday also screened off as George drew LaVine into Holiday’s path. Westbrook got to the basket just ahead of Wendell Carter Jr. for the layup to tie the game at 112 with 19.2 seconds left.
Earlier in the quarter during that Bulls pivotal defensive stand, Carter had made one of the plays of the season, a brilliant block on a Westbrook dunk attempt at the rim.
“I had a opportunity to be great tonight in an area I feel I can be really good at in the future,” said Carter, who had six points. “I decided to take the chance; high risk, high reward as they say.”
The Bulls needed a reward in this game with the events of late, 11 losses in 12 games and a new coach.
“Just what this team’s been through the last couple weeks, so it means a lot to our guys,” said Markkanen.
The Bulls were out of timeouts following Westbrook’s score, so LaVine dribbled the ball up court. He settled in high on the right side against George, the Thunder’s best defender. But it didn’t have to be all-Zach-all-the-time anymore. LaVine dribbled right to a handoff to Markkanen coming up from the right corner. George switched onto Markkanen. Markkanen began to began to go left with Holiday coming up in what appeared to be a dribble handoff to Holiday. But as George shaded right on Markkanen to get between he and Holiday, Markkanen sensed that and spun back right and beat George.
Adams came over along the baseline to help, but Markkanen threw up a runner that hit the rim, bounced up against the backboard and into the basket for a 114-112 Bulls lead with 4.9 seconds left.
“I was a hundred percent going to Justin,” Markkanen admitted. “I thought because he made the three on the last play, I thought he was going to get a good look when I handed off to him. But then George jumped on my right side a little bit, so I knew I had a spin open. I thought I had a dunk there, but then he (Adams) was coming from the weak side. So I had to put it up. I’ve always been comfortable with that (last shot), so I don’t have any problems. I’m happy having the ball.”
The Bulls even more so.
Markkanen was greeted enthusiastically by his teammates as he came back to the bench, Bobby Portis with a scream, Kris Dunn with a chest bump. There’s a good chance both make their returns Saturday when the Bulls play the Boston Celtics in the United Center, though Boylen said no determination has been made yet.
But Oklahoma City had time to steal one as they just recently did in Brooklyn on this road trip with a George three winner.
And George did get that open three as Adams, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds, walled off LaVine. George’s attempted winner hit the back rim and was rebounded by LaVine to end the game, the Bulls losing streak and Boylen’s streak of never having coached a winning NBA game.
“We have to learn how to win,” said Boylen. “We have to learn how to take the pressure of a NBA fourth quarter. I thought we did that.”
The Bulls did so at the most vital time and against a powerful opponent that is 16-8 and had won nine of their last 11. After that sluggish opening in Indiana in Boylen’s debut, the Bulls ran to a 34-28 first quarter lead on 57 percent shooting and a stunning 70-62 halftime lead. It was the team’s highest scoring first half in seven years.
But here-we-go again came in a grim third quarter in which the Bulls committed 11 turnovers and fell behind by 10 points and by 91-87 to start the fourth quarter. The Thunder made it 98-91 three minutes into the fourth quarter while Boylen rode defenders Harrison — at least one steal in his 10th straight game — Carter and Hutchison, kept Markkanen on the floor despite a fifth foul with 6:25 left and briefly toggled in Robin Lopez, who had 11 points.
“Wendell, he embraces contact and collision,” noted Boylen. “If you embrace contact and collision, you can play for the Bulls anytime you want. He loves it. To me, that’s the beauty of that guy. He just keeps taking it. Rolo helped settle us and was terrific. Hutch can rebound and handle the ball. And You can get a lot done in this league if you are tough, and Harrison is tough. He is to me what the Bulls are all about, play your minutes with force and put the team first and he did that.”
Not enough of which would have mattered without the Finnish finisher. Markkanen did get a bump on his elbow in the third quarter, but said it was nothing. Though he is something.
“He cares about the team, he honors the team. I don’t know if it’s from playing with his national team or whatever it is, but he’s such a good teammate,” said Boylen. “He understands how to play. He has great confidence. Lauri’s one of those guys that thinks he’s going to make the winning play, whatever that is. That’s the beauty of that dude. He’s a hell of a guy to have on our side.”