The Bulls with Monday’s 114-105 loss to the Brooklyn Nets are seeing 7. Could it be their lucky number?
The Bulls with the defeat dropped to the seventh poorest record in the NBA behind the Nets, thus enhancing the Bulls odds for the NBA draft lottery. If all teams stay in their same position, the Bulls would get the No. 7 pick in the June draft. They’ve had some luck with uniform number 7s, like Ben Gordon and Toni Kukoc. And last year with the Jimmy Butler trade, the Bulls got the No. 7 pick in the draft. And they still are feeling pretty good about it as Lauri Markkanen on Monday night became the first Bulls rookie since Elton Brand in 2000 with at least 1,000 points and 500 rebounds.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "He’s such a complete player. He’s a guy who puts a lot of time and effort into his craft. When teams started getting into him, he worked on his face up, jab step jump shot a lot and he’s gotten better at that as the season has gone on. Obviously, everyone knew he could shoot when he came out. But his attack, getting to the basket, the free throw line and his ability to rebound; he rebounds at the top of his jump, he rebounds with two hands. And he can push the ball out on the break as well.
“His work ethic is one of his best attributes and he’s going to continue to get better and better,” Hoiberg continued enthusiastically. “We put the ball in his hands more as the year has gone on and the confidence he’s shooting the ball with now, it’s been a lot of fun to watch. He’s made so many strides and shown he’s going to be a special player in this league. The kid is an absolute winner.”
Though not on Monday as Markkanen again, as well as most of the starters, sat out the fourth quarter in that sort of knowing wink to the final standings when the Bulls trailed 86-83 after three quarters.
“I thought we really went out and competed at a high level tonight,” said Hoiberg. “I thought we reversed that from the last game the other night we played against Brooklyn (124-96 loss). I thought we came out with really good effort for 48 minutes and I thought we moved the ball much better as well. Our guys responded.
Markkanen finished with 10 points and six rebounds after sitting out the previous Brooklyn game because of the back to back after scoring at least 20 points in the three games before that.
“I’m a competitor, so I’m just trying to win every time I step on the court,” said Markkanen. “But the situation is what it is with plenty of lineups since the All Star break. I’m just trying to win; stats will follow. The situation is not ideal. I’ve had my ups and downs, maybe moments I am proud of, moments I am not proud of. So I think it’s been a decent first year and get going this summer and get better.”
The Bulls were led again by Sean Kilpatrick off the bench with 16 points, nine in the fourth quarter. Cameron Payne had 15 points and three of five three pointers. Bobby Portis had 14 points, Justin Holiday 13 and David Nwaba 11 points and 10 rebounds. Cristiano Felicio had 10 points and Ryan Arcidiacono had a career best nine points. The Bulls close the 2017-18 season Wednesday in the United Center against the Detroit Pistons. The Bulls dropped to 27-54.
“We had a bad taste in our mouth after the last game,” said Arcidiacono. “We knew we wanted to come out here and be the hard playing team tonight.”
And so now mercifully comes to an end this delicate and awkward dance to the finish of the season in which the Bulls are the rope being tugged on by the losses that potentially will enhance their position in the draft and the natural inclination and desire of professionals to compete.
It’s become a tight rope to navigate, when doing the right thing could cause a worse fall.
And so after a hotly competitive game in which the Bulls trailed 29-26 after one quarter, 62-55 at halftime and then by just 106-102 with just over three minutes left in the game, the Bulls still were riding a group with Arcidiacono, Nwaba, Kilpatrick, Felicio and Jerian Grant. The Nets mostly play guards, also, in their flinging game that saw them cut down to 42 threes Monday. Though Allen Crabbe had a career high 41 points with eight of 11 threes.
“We wanted to experiment some with that smaller lineup,” said Hoiberg. “We liked some of the things we saw out of it. We played it a lot against Charlotte down the stretch, the last game. So it is something we wanted to continue to look at. We’re just putting guys in different positions now to see how they handle different things and I liked how our guys went out and competed. At the end of the day the difference was the turnovers, 19. It’s been an issue for us of late, but on the other end we did force 18 that led to (22) points for us. So I liked some of the things we did on that end.”
There were some moments. Felicio has come out of his early season cocoon, making a few nice catches on the run for scores, though the alternating guards don’t lead to consistency and he did have three turnovers. Nwaba was amazing on the offensive boards, his six matching the total of the entire Nets team. Of course, few Nets players ever come inside the three-point line, which makes offensive rebounding problematic. Portis was efficient shooting seven of nine, and none of the Nets could keep him from getting inside position. Arcidiacono was certain looking for his shot and accurate and Markkanen’s threes were pure when he got space.
And there was Kilpatrick again in the fourth quarter, making threes, Nwaba with one of those full court sprints after a Nets turnover and a ferocious dunk that had the Nets—and some Bulls fans—a little shaky as the Bulls were within four points with 5:51 left.
D’Angelo Russell on the way to 21 points and 11 assists then was too elusive in those last six minutes, penetrating for a pair of lob dunk passes and his own scores to give the Nets what they wanted, a win in their last home game of the season, and the Bulls the loss that at least for the short term is not the worst of outcomes.
But you can sense this young group of Bulls players, if understanding what they are experiencing, also are ready for it to be a story of youth, one quickly forgotten.
“I’m doing a lot different stuff than I was doing in college,” said Markkanen. “I think I read situations better; the aggressiveness, you have to learn that, too. Some nights you are not going to have your spots and open shots.”
So Markkanen also has concentrated in rebounding, pointing more to his 500 rebounds than his 1,000 plus points.
“I feel like that’s what people have been doubting me for, that I can’t rebound,” said Markkanen. “I took that personally and just tried to do my best. I love to play basketball. Of course, the first year my body is pretty banged up and kind of tired. Of course, there are things you cannot control (he missed 15 games with mostly back issues). But I’m trying to play all 82 games; that’s what I’m going for next year. I’m going to do my best not to miss a game. Maybe it’s good to get a little break now, have a good summer and hopefully the playoffs next year.”
Championship No. 7? OK, not quite yet. But it is next.