If Kris Dunn misses many more games he could be in the running for MVP. Certainly with the Bulls 108-103 loss Friday to the Los Angeles Lakers, at least Most Valu-Bull.
The Bulls with point guard Dunn missing his fourth straight game with a concussion and apparently no imminent return, fell behind the Lakers by 17 points early in yet another lackluster start. The Bulls rallied back impressively behind the reserves led by Nikola Mirotic with 18 points and Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine each with 16. Lauri Markkanen led the starters with 11 points.
And then after trailing by double digits in each quarter, usually after a casual stretch with the starting five, the Bulls hung a 16-1 fourth quarter piece of art work on the Lakers and still led 97-96 with 2:46 left. The Bulls next points with Zach LaVine and Markkanen taking turns at point guard down the stretch was with 13.3 seconds left and the Lakers leading by eight.
The Bulls coughed up 14 turnovers for 20 Lakers points and strolled back as the Lakers scored 33 points in transition on fast breaks. LaVine had a miserable three of 17 shooting game for 10 points as the starters were a combined 14 for 50. The Lakers had 52 inside points to just 30 for the Bulls, who were 17 of 36 on threes.
The Bulls are 18-31. The Lakers moved to 19-29 in winning their eighth in the last 10.
"Kris (is) obviously our best push guard and getting the ball down in a hurry and is our best player in our flow offense," noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We're still adjusting without Kris, who obviously has been a big part of what we are doing here. We are trying to get Zach reintegrated into what we are doing as well. Some if it is moving parts, understanding where guys are on the floor. We need to finish at the rim better and we will. I'm confident Zach's got good days ahead. He is trying to get his rhythm, but that will come.
"Kris really had developed into our closer and we obviously are without him now and you've seen that happened in two of the close games we've had (losing down the stretch to the Pelicans)," Hoiberg pointed out. "We need to find someone to make the right plays. Niko hit some big shots, but we need to find that person who we can give the ball to close it and that's why we went with Zach late in the game because he can manufacture a shot and create his own look and also create for teammates."
He likely can and will convert some of those shots. Though not Friday as LaVine missed both his free throws with 1:14 left while trailing 101-97 and then an off balance driving layup with 38.7 seconds left still trailing by the same score after the Bulls did force a miss. Markkanen missed on the follow dunk attempt and then the Bulls began fouling. The Lakers made their free throws with Markkanen and Mirotic threes coming too late.
"I know it's a process," said LaVine, who in seven games back after missing 11 months following knee surgery is averaging 13.6 points and shooting 38 percent, 36 percent on threes. "It gets frustrating at times; you want to smooth it out. You want to be in those situations (at the close). I'm willing and able to. Just didn't happen.
"I just think it was a bad game," LaVine offered with a shrug. "I missed a lot of easy shots, a lot of easy plays I normally make; just have to be better. I haven't been through this before; first time for me. It's frustrating because you feel able to and it's just not going sometimes. I just feel like today was a bad game. But regardless of the way I played, we were capable of winning the game and that's what we should have done. I missed shots; ball didn't go in the hoop."
It was an uncharacteristic shooting game for LaVine, though he was correct. And, most importantly he did play 26 minutes without physical limitations. The Bulls had chances to win in another entertaining game thanks to the reserves' play. The loss could be blamed more on questionable ball handling and offense, the failure to get back in transition against the sprinting Lakers, making a hard foul to at least limit three-point plays, which the Bulls only occasionally do.
The Bulls knew coming into this season point guard remained the most important position to fill, which is why they tried all sorts of experimental moves in recent seasons, like last season's trade for Cameron Payne. Fortunately, Dunn developed quickly after starting the season on the bench. He became a late game big shot maker to general surprise, but also a vital defender in transition and the player Hoiberg relied upon to change the team's torpid identity.
After starting the season among the league's slowest teams, the Bulls behind Dunn went from 23rd in pace in early December, according to figures supplied by the Bulls, to second since December 8 with also the return of Mirotic. The Bulls assists the last two months have been more than 25 per game, ranking in the league's top 3. They had 21 Friday.
Jerian Grant had nine points and eight assists without a turnover, which are excellent numbers for a point guard. But Grant isn't an adept offensive facilitator as evidenced by Hoiberg using both Markkanen and LaVine in the fourth quarter as playmakers. That doesn't appear to be a strength of either.
"It's not just difficult on Zach, but on us, too," said Valentine, who also played some point guard and had 11 rebounds and four of six threes. "When you add a new piece—thank god it's a very good piece—it stinks at times, but it will work out. Our chemistry is messed up with different lineups, different people in there. I think that's why we're turning the ball over a little bit and our defense is a little shaky.
"Zach coming back makes us a ton better, so that's a good problem to have," noted Valentine, who lost his starting spot to LaVine. "It's tough not only for me, but for coach, the whole team. But it's a good problem to have. I think we'll figure it out and when we do it's going to be special."
The Bulls haven't appeared very special these last two games, outplayed badly in Philadelphia Wednesday after that double overtime disappointment in New Orleans. And then beaten out of the starting blocks by the Lakers, who quickly were leading 30-13. There was a lot of Lopez-on-Lopez crime in those first and third quarter sequences with twin brother Brook getting 17 points and a plus-19 to eight points for Robin and a miss-21. They've now split the 18 career games against one another. So it was the Bulls reserves again led by Portis and Valentine in the first quarter and then a dose of David Nwaba to settle things.
"Our starters, for the most part, have been great for us all year," said Hoiberg. "But we have not gotten off to good starts our last two games. That was a big part of how we turned our season around. Now we're digging holes."
The Bulls cut the Lakers lead to 32-25 after one quarter and then got within 57-55 after a Justin Holiday steal and pass ahead to Nwaba for a running dunk and three-point play. Former Laker Nwaba had eight points. The Lakers led by Brandon Ingram's 25 points (Lonzo Ball was out with a sore knee) went back ahead 62-57 at halftime. But another of those brutal stretches of mistakes with four turnovers in five third quarter possessions enabled the Lakers an 11-0 run and they led 84-72 after three quarters. The Lakers quickly made it 89-76 early in the fourth quarter before that big Bulls kick. Mirotic had a pair of clever fakes to draw Lakers flybys for threes and Valentine hit a pair of step back threes, giving the Bulls a 92-90 lead with 5:38 left in the game.
Home, facing a young Lakers team that coughed up multiple double digit leads? Time to pull away? The Bulls couldn't find anyone to drive the train.
"Our second unit did a really, really good job getting us back into that game," Hoiberg agreed. "They got us back into it in the fourth when we fell behind double digits."
Mirotic made another three after the Lakers got a fast break score after yet another turnover, that one by Mirotic. So it still was 95-92 Bulls with 4:11 left.
"We knew this (fast break) is their strength," said Mirotic. "I remember I had one really bad turnover in the fourth quarter, important possession. Things like that happen. We just need to have patience (in) important moments, try to find the hot guy and make it simple."
Markkanen and Mirotic then missed quick threes as the ball movement was weak without a confident playmaker. Yet, Mirotic got himself under and fouled and dropped a pair of free throws with 2:46 left for the 97-96 Bulls lead. But after that Markkanen was stripped trying to take advantage of a mismatch inside, missed a forced three with time running out on the shot clock in a poor possession. Then LaVine missed his pair of free throws and then the driving layup attempt out of a timeout followed by Markkanen's missed dunk follow, after which he angrily (rare for him) complained about a missed foul call. Yes, young man, you are officially now an NBA player.
The Bulls, too, are looking for a little help.