It's games like Friday's Bulls 127-124 win over the Dallas Mavericks that give you a little peek into the team's brightening future with Kris Dunn all over making plays, Lauri Markkanen opening up the court with his shooting and throwing down followup dunks, a pair of young stars essentially just starting their careers. Add some supporting role players who have been routinely outplaying the opposition, and perhaps premier athlete Zach LaVine to return any day now.
The kids are getting there; they're becoming good enough to dream.
"Really good win coming down here," agreed Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "This is a team that's been really hot, rolling."
Despite a 13-27 record, Dallas was coming in after wins over the Raptors and Thunder and losing at the buzzer to a Stephen Curry three. But the Bulls led by Dunn's career high 32 points along with nine assists and four steals knocked the Mavs off balance with a 20-7 start. And then after losing the lead in the third quarter, the Bulls rode the reserves back to a lead after trailing 88-80 to start the fourth quarter and got a flying followup slam dunk from Markkanen for a 107-102 lead with 2:50 left and a pull up three from Dunn with 2:15 remaining for a 110-104 lead. And then Dunn tormented Dennis Smith Jr. with a pull up three and jumper before finding Nikola Mirotic rolling for a score to make it 114-104 with 1:08 left in the game, most the the fans having departed by then.
They should have known better; the Bulls still are kids.
Justin Holiday had 23 points, Markkanen 16 and David Nwaba 13 to lead a reserve group with 42 points. Mirotic had 11 points and 10 rebounds. The Bulls broke a three-game losing streak making 14 of 28 threes and shooting 56.4 percent.
"Lauri was awesome the first half, really all game," said Hoiberg. "They really started hugging him, staying attached and Kris was a beneficiary for that, stepping up and knocking down shots. His attack to the basket where he had some really, really good finishes was as good as it's been, really this year. Just a really good team win against a tough team, team that did the exact same thing to Golden State before Steph hit the three; they do that.
"Obviously," Hoiberg added, "we would like to close it better. When you have a 10-point lead with about a minute to go you have to find a way to get a couple of stops. We gambled on a steal, got a lane violation, just really stupid things. But it's win and we'll take it."
Oh yeah, that. The Bulls even with the short losing streak lately continue to play uplifting, exciting games. Perhaps some of the thrill of victory was muted Friday by the denoument, the Bulls playing like eight-year veterans for 47 minutes and then eighth graders for the last minute, unable to inbound, fouling off balance shooters, gambling for steals and giving up layups, fighting eachother for rebounds and losing them.
But as Shakespeare said, All's well that ends well. That's right; no one had to stay in Texas overnight.
It was a mostly terrific game for the Bulls, and perhaps another new beginning with the play of Dunn and the confident coaching of Hoiberg.
The best offenses in the game, particularly with teams like the Warriors and Rockets, aren't burdened by the nuisance sideline play calling that in recent years has diminished every sport, from charting basically every play in football to calling pitches from the dugout in baseball to basketball coaches signaling every play. It's become almost accepted with the acceleration of coaching salaries, some teams turning lead players into functional robots.
But credit to Hoiberg for showing trust and confidence in his young players, likely enhancing their development. It came, Hoiberg revealed after the game, pregame following two points for Dunn in Wednesday's loss to Toronto.
"I brought him in my office and I said listen: ‘I'm going to start giving you some added responsibility; you're becoming a guy who as you go, we go. I'm going to let you control the offense.' So he is not looking over his shoulder at me for play calls all the time. Start recognizing who to get the ball to: Justin's got it going, run a play for him.
"Tonight," said Hoiberg about the quick start, 11-0 overall for the game on fast break points and 34-28 lead after one quarter, "we had great flow early and we went to it and struck with it, started out the game eight for eight. Those are the things to get Kris to the next step to continue with his development, to go out there and recognize situations to where I am not barking out a play and we kind of slow down. We want to keep our pace, we want to keep our flow, and part of that is Kris Dunn taking that responsibility and running with it. I told him, ‘You can't have lapses in your play, especially on the defensive end.' Which against Toronto that was the disappointing thing to me. He didn't score the ball great, but he had a couple of possessions defensively that he just took off. These are the things that can't happen when you are the leader out there on the floor. So that's the next step with Kris and I thought tonight was a really good first step with that."
It's a great stride, both for Dunn and for Hoiberg, the latter mixing confidence in his players with accountability as Hoiberg also chided Dunn for that late defensive gamble that led to a three-point play for Dallas.
"He's continuing to grow and getting better," said Hoiberg. "We just have to take away some of those dumb plays."
There weren't many for the Bulls in running up that first quarter lead with Dunn pushing the ball and Markkanen making threes. Dallas tightened up on him afterward and Markkanen had just two points in the second half, but those were spectacular.
The Bulls reserves have been among the league's best with the return of Mirotic and Nwaba, though Nwaba's scoring decline lately has resulted in more individual play. It was so again to start the second quarter as the Mavs drove back into the game, trailing just 57-53 at halftime. Dallas took the lead in the third quarter with a 10-2 start to the second half compounded by one of those dry stretches of turnovers and quick shots for the Bulls. The Mavericks closed the third quarter scoring in their last eight possessions for an 88-80 lead after three quarters.
The Bulls weren't doing a very good job exploiting the Mavs playing small with three guards, too often failing to attack the mismatch of the small guard while the Mavs little guys kept the ball moving for easy scores. Though Dunn was out much of that time.
But then with Nwaba, Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant contributing, the Bulls opened the fourth quarter on a 10-0 run to take a 90-88 lead. From there, it was about those big plays the Bulls made. And the letdown narrowly avoided, mostly thanks to the clutch free throw shooting of Holiday. Holiday made a couple of defensive errors in that late mad, Mavs rush. But he made all eight of his free throws in the last minute—the Bulls made a season most 25 free throws with a near franchise record 47-point fourth quarter—to save the Bulls from an historically horrible loss.
"That's two in a row for Justin; had 26 against Toronto," noted Hoiberg. "Really got in a good rhythm and carried that over into tonight's game. He's shooting the ball with a lot of confidence right now. Justin, when he has the opportunity to shoot, he's stepping up and making big ones for us. He may go 12 minutes without touching the ball, but when he does, give him credit for being able to knock down shots."
The Mavericks last led 100-98 with 6:45 left on a second straight Dirk Nowitzki three. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle may have erred taking out Nowitzki then as he kept getting open. He never got back in. The Bulls scored seven straight climaxed by a Holiday three on a Dunn pass after a fake drive. That made it 105-100 Bulls with 4:08 left. Then it was Markkanen's big followup slam on the Nwaba miss and Dunn's three and drive to get to a minute left and ahead double digits, 114-104.
"I would say it's impressive if I didn't know who Kris Dunn was," said Holiday. "Kris made big plays all game. If you know Kris Dunn, you're like, that's what you expect from him."
And then that amazing, demoralizing, excruciating minute that began with Holiday fouling Wesley Matthews on an off balance three, Dunn missing the steal and leaving a four on five for a drive for a three-point play, Dunn getting himself trapped in the corner on an inbounds and bailed out by the officials, which would happen again as the Bulls appeared to get the benefit of two late calls. There was Dunn and Holiday retreating and allowing the Mavs to pick up the rolling ball at half court to save time, Mirotic throwing an inbounds right to Smith for a score, Mirotic and Markkanen colliding and losing a rebound that went out to Smith for a three, Mirotic with the lane violation on a Dunn free throw, Maxi Kieber running through everyone for 30 feet and a dunk. And then the Mavericks almost pulling off the highlight of the year with 2.6 seconds left, a full court pass from Smith to Kieber at the top of the key. The Bulls ran toward Kieber, who passed left to an open Yogi Ferrell. Almost deja vu all over again with a wrong mistake. It wasn't so much the heat, but almost the humility. His three to tie came up short.
What a coming out party that would have spoiled.