Could this be the start of something big for the Bulls? Or at least something medium?
"We just kind of take it one day at a time and we're direct and honest every day and we talk about the same things," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said Sunday following the Bulls 112-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers - the Bulls first two-game winning streak of the season.
It was the Bulls third win in the last five games, a stretch in which they outscored their opponents by about two points per game after being outscored by about 10 per game previously. Plus, the Bulls were led by 31 points with five of 10 threes from Lauri Markkanen and 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists from Kris Dunn.
It was Markkanen's second consecutive game of at least 30 points and Dunn's second straight game close to a triple double.
"You have to give the guys the credit," said Boylen. "They're coachable, teachable and they're becoming reliable. It's fun."
Winning always is, especially where the Bulls have been these last two seasons. But it's more than that with the exceptional performances of two of the players the Bulls hope to build around, Markkanen and Dunn. And that's with leading scorer Zach LaVine out, perhaps just another few days, with a sprained ankle.
Both Markkanen and Dunn were inactive most of the first two months with injuries. Markkanen came back first and has been almost effortless lately with his scoring prowess, producing 30-point games without forcing or chasing shots.
"I thought they did a great job in the first half of going at us... We were able to make some adjustments and played better defense in the second half as a group." -Jim Boylen
Heck, Boylen seems so enamored of him that he's making Markkanen sound more like Sir Lancelot.
"He's a good player, a smart guy and when your heart's pure, good things happen for you," said Boylen. "His heart is pure."
Markkanen was a bit more prosaic.
"Getting my conditioning back," noted Markkanen. "Don't get tired as quickly that way. I've got more power in my legs when I shoot the ball, so it just helps everything to get that rhythm back."
Markkanen has worked seamlessly with Dunn, finding open spaces on the wing for threes or rolling for a finish like he did for a late lob and score to creep over the 30-point barrier again.
"We just work together every day," Markkanen said. "We both talk to each other about basketball and we know each other well and I think that's the biggest thing. I thought he would struggle after an injury like that (meniscus strain), but he has been doing great."
Dunn came off the bench his first two games back in his Dec. 10 return. Perhaps more than anyone among the players the team is most counting on, his presence and performance may have been under the most scrutiny.
"He's developing right in front of our eyes. He's got a poise and patience to him that is like a veteran." Boylen on Kris Dunn
But since Boylen returned him to the starting lineup, Dunn has played his most consistently in all facets of the game since coming to the Bulls in the Jimmy Butler trade along with LaVine and Markkanen. They remain the potential core for the Bulls, and have yet to consistently play together. Though with Markkanen and Dunn sharing team-high scoring honors the last five games, well, you're looking in someone else's eyes and you suddenly realize you may have the start of something big there.
The lanky 6-4 point guard the last five games is averaging 17.8 points, six assists and 5.8 rebounds with at least one steal each game, shooting 53.4 percent. He's had at least seven assists and seven rebounds three times.
"He's developing right in front of our eyes," said Boylen. "He's got a poise and patience to him that is like a veteran. He's in the pocket. He has got his head up. He sees what's going on. He's not going too fast, he's not going too slow. Hits Lauri on that late roll at the end there for that layup. Those are hard plays."
It wasn't exactly a statement game or measuring stick since it was between the teams with the poorest records in the conference, the Bulls now 9-25 and the Cavaliers 8-26. And this time it was not the Bulls who were weakened most by injuries. The Cavs were without Kevin Love. J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Rodney Hood. Larry Nance Jr. played center and led the Cavs with 20 points.
But as a result, the Bulls were able to dominate on the boards again with a 43-31 margin while shooting 55 percent overall with limited Cavs rim protection. The Bulls also shot 11 of 22 on threes. The Bulls got 15 points from Justin Holiday, 12 points, eight assists and three steals from Ryan Arcidiacono, who easily outplayed Cavs rookie guard Collin Sexton, and 11 points from the rejuvenated Robin Lopez with double figure scoring four of his last six games.
"I thought they did a great job in the first half of going at us," Boylen said about the Cavs leading 59-54 at halftime. "We were able to make some adjustments and played better defense in the second half as a group. They ended up scoring 33 (the second half). They had 30 points in the paint in the first half, 18 in the second. That was our focus at halftime. We needed to play better defense as a unit and I thought we did. We got a lot from a lot of guys. Obviously, Markkanen had another terrific game. I thought Lopez anchored us down the stretch. I thought Shaq's (Harrison) and Justin's defense on Jordan Clarkson was extraordinary."
Boylen even made a point about the Bulls first points, a Holiday steal to open the game that led to a pair of free throws and an early 10-5 lead.
"Those are big things, too," Boylen insisted. "On the road, we talk about defense travels."
It left fairly quickly, however, as the depleted Cavs shot 55 percent and led 29-28 after one quarter. The Bulls appeared to speed up the game a bit in the first half from previous games and began to leave open too many driving lanes. Cleveland took a 49-44 second quarter lead, fell back behind on Markkanen's shooting and then had their biggest lead of the game at seven points moments before the end of the first half.
But it was the Bulls this time who pulled away after halftime with the first eight third quarter points from the stoic Markkanen, smoothly walking into a pair of threes that led to 14 third quarter points. The Cavs would score just 15 and the Bulls were leading 84-74 after three. Dunn then kicked off the fourth quarter in his 15-foot elbow jumper spot and the Bulls were off to a quick 14-7 bolt and 17-point lead with about seven minutes left. The Bulls were the ones with the big lead for a change at the end, sending in the reserves. They did not include Jabari Parker, who didn't play despite being available.
But that Big Two of Dunn and Markkanen left few questions. Other than what it's going to look like when LaVine returns with his nearly 24 points per game scoring average. Could this be the start?