NBA debut Sunday for Lauri Markkanan, the seventh overall pick in last June’s NBA draft: Four points, one of nine shooting and zero for six on threes. To do list: Get back in the gym, watch some film about what might have gone wrong; not losing any sleep because, you know, not lacking in confidence. And then kick LeBron’s butt.
Well, not exactly man to man, but the Finish Flash Tuesday scored 15 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls broke away for a 108-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“He’s got a little nasty streak to him, which we love,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said about the seven-foot rookie from Finland. “You know he’s not going to back down from anybody. Even though he didn’t play great the other day, he is the first guy in the gym and you could tell that it really bothered him that his debut didn’t go very well. It was great to see him bounce back. One thing we are never going to worry about Lauri is his shot; he has a beautiful stroke. He’s going to keep shooting. He has great confidence in himself, which as a 21-year-old in this league is a great quality to have; loved his aggressiveness in the second half.”
The Bulls in going to 3-2 with one preseason game left-- Friday against Toronto in the United Center--got a game high 28 points and 11 rebounds from lead scorer Justin Holiday and 14 points from Denzel Valentine.
James, playing his first preseason game with the Cavs regular season starting lineup, led with 17 points. Derrick Rose had 13 points for the 0-4 Cavs.
Who are, understandably less concerned about preseason play than perhaps the Bulls.
But it was another encouraging outing from the developing Bulls with 15 of 41 threes (eight from Markkanen and Holiday), leadership on the boards and the continuation of their spirited play with impressive passing and ball movement.
Nikola Mirotic suffered a sprained ankle in the first quarter. He left for the rest of the game, but it was diagnosed as mild and he said he would be ready to play Friday. Mirotic doesn’t tape his ankles for games or practices, but said he now would start with the second such sprain. It is a common practice in the NBA.
The Bulls got a tough game from David Nwaba, the aggressive guard who is proving to be an excellent defender. He had eight points and five rebounds. Ryan Arcidiacono, playing backup point guard with Kris Dunn out, had three points. But he was instrumental in Markkanen’s run with efficient ball handling and passing. He’s probably the best among the guards in running an offense.
“Something we are stressing and emphasizing is breaking down the defense, getting in the paint and making the right play,” said Hoiberg. “Kris (out two to four weeks), we miss him as a guy who can break down his man. I thought Arcidiacono played very well tonight; he got us into our offense. David Nwaba was terrific rebounding and pushing up the floor; we’re going to have to play with multiple ball handlers and I thought Denzel made really good plays as well as we went on that (fourth quarter) run. He (Nwaba) is the other downhill guy we have on this roster, good at attacking closeouts, a good slasher on the weak side cutting in, has tremendous athleticism. He’s an underrated passer. When he rebounds the ball he’s going to initiate our offense and we are very comfortable with him doing that.”
It was a crisp and effective offensive game from the Bulls, who continued their unselfish play under Hoiberg’s direction.
The Bulls jumped on the Cavs early with a 10-point lead and 24-20 after the first quarter. Robin Lopez took advantage of the smaller Cavs inside while Holiday drew a pair of three-point shooting fouls and made all six. The Cavs grabbed a nine-point second quarter lead behind a second unit led by Rose, who shot well and had a flashy crossover for a score.
No one should be fooled by Markkanen having a strong fourth quarter finish in a preseason game. That’s usually when the players most likely to be cut get in. But the Cavs with their top units were trying to mesh. They feature a second team with the likes of top NBA veterans like Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Jose Calderon with Rose splitting time with the second unit to prepare for the eventual return of Isaiah Thomas. The Cavs second team probably would be a top four team in the conference. Yet, Markkanen excelled against that aggressive group.
The Bulls also showed appealing resilience on the road in turning the game around in the second quarter behind Holiday after trailing to take a 50-42 halftime lead.
“I think my confidence is where it has always been,” said Holiday. “I try to come out every game and win the game, stay aggressive offensively because I am here to do that. Just happened to fall well for me tonight. I’m very comfortable being relied on; that’s something I’ve waited for a long time. It’s just when I think about the game, usually when I was trying to make a team I had to think about myself and how I can do this. But (now) I have to look at how the team is doing and bring that into my mind instead of just worrying about me. I’m very comfortable in this role, but I am still trying to grow and continue to get better.
“I’m embracing it for sure and trying to enjoy it,” said the Bulls new offensive leader. “I’m glad I’m in this role. Like I keep saying, doing what’s best for the team and not for myself. I’m enjoying every second of it. I know it’s early, but I hope I can continue to grow and continue to help this team grow and we can do something special this year.”
The Cavs with a Rose three and floater and James dunk surged out to a brief lead early in the third quarter. But again these Bulls did not shrink back even with Rose, James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Love on the floor.
The Bulls put together a terrific fast break with Grant firing ahead to Paul Zipser for a Holiday finish and then Holiday in the right place on a Bobby Portis miss on another fast break for a putback. The Bulls led in fast break points and had a 16-4 margin in second chance points. They led 72-67 after three quarters, and then Markkanen made the public address announcer sound like a broken record with his name repeated in a series of scores as the Bulls got the lead to 15 with six minutes remaining on a Markkanen run out for a dunk.
So what does it all mean, Alfie?
Not much given it’s exhibition, but something.
These still are actual NBA players playing big minutes, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James. The wins matter some, but the reactions do more. The Bulls pretty much gave up when they got down against Dallas in the opening back to back, and then responded when they fell behind the next time. They had a poor defensive start against the Pelicans and then changed that. They weren’t getting to the free throw line, and then did the second game against New Orleans. They fouled too frequently against New Orleans and then reduced that Tuesday. They were being outrebounded and then outrebounded the Cavs. They have been a willing group with an upward learning curve.
Like Markkanan after his shaky debut Sunday following back spasms he said are gone.
“Keep my confidence up, ready to move on and play another game; that’s what I love about this job, next one coming up quick,” said Markkanen. “Of course the last game was my first one. I was a little nervous before that. There’s no reason to lose sleep; do your work after the game, talk about what you will do differently and go from there.”
It’s been encouraging so far, especially without Zach LaVine and the last few games Dunn. The overall talent may be questioned, but not the desire and commitment.
“Defensively how we played today was great,” said Holiday. “How we answered the times we had lulls on offense, not moving the ball and we came back and answered. So I think we are doing a good job. We have a lot of room to grow, but I think we are going to do that because we are buying in to what the coach wants us to do. I keep saying there are going to be a lot of ups and downs for us this season. It is going to be how we respond to that and we are doing a good job of that now.”