It seemed as if Christmas came in March for Jim Boylen Monday in the Bulls 116-101 victory over the Phoenix Suns, as if all his basketball wishes came true wrapped in in one impressive game.
Like when Shaquille Harrison, making a surprise start for the injured Otto Porter Jr., raced in front of the Suns' Devin Booker and Josh Jackson to get a loose ball and turn it into a layup score. It drew a double fist pump from Boylen along the sideline.
"I love those effort plays," enthused Boylen.
Harrison hustles for the layup
There was Wayne Selden Jr. on the floor snatching the ball among three Suns and getting Antonio Blakeney a fiery one-handed dunk, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot turning an offensive rebound into a three-point play.
"I thought that loose ball by Wayne Selden was a great play," Boylen agreed, the Bulls across his chest almost busting with pride. "I thought the offensive rebound by Timmy Luwawu that he laid back in…,those were huge moments, big effort plays, hustle plays to keep the lead."
Robin Lopez with a team-high 24 points on 11 of 14 field goals powering over Suns rookie star and No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton for dunks so impressive Ayton said afterward he told Lopez he intended to steal the Bulls center's shifty moves, Cristiano Felicio joining in despite Ayton's 25 points and 12 rebounds with a second quarter sequence with the reserves outscoring the opponent's and grabbing a rebound away from Ayton and slam dunking.
"I thought we got a lot from our centers," said Boylen. "Robin was terrific and I thought Cris Felicio did a great job, too; Robin gets on a roll and gets that jump hook going and he's got great poise in the pocket. He is a big strong dude."
Bulls vs. Suns game recap
Kris Dunn and Harrison staying closer to Devin Booker than his shadow, forcing the high scoring guard to take 24 shots for 25 points in a game the Bulls led by double digits for just about all of the last three quarters.
"We just talked about playing hard, playing together and playing for each other," said Boylen in the aftermath of the painful destruction in Sacramento Sunday. "I thought our guys did that. We had the right appropriate fear and brought the appropriate energy and edge."
And in this most hard-to-figure season, the Bulls played an excellent game in the wake of five poor ones consecutively to raise their record to 20-52. The Suns fell to 17-55, so no one is suggesting the Bulls are ready. But the Suns came in having won six of 10, including over the Bucks and Warriors. The Suns are a fast paced offense—OK, who isn't?—and came out trying to halve Mike D'Antoni's old seven second or less offense with 30-yard sprint times.
But Harrison and Dunn, the latter with 14 points, began picking up the Suns guards by half court and doing as much jostling as the game allows. Booker had enough hands in his face to understand an octopus' prey.
"Devin Booker is a great scorer," said Harrison. "I feel like me and Kris did a great job, bothered him a little bit that it affected his offense. I had the same mindset to play my minutes with force and make plays any way I can."
That was in Harrison's first start of the season with Porter sustaining a right shoulder bruise against the Kings. Porter said he got banged on a screen early in the game and it continued to affect his shooting motion. Both he and Boylen didn't predict any length of absence.
Ryan Arcidiacono or Selden usually starts in these circumstances. But Boylen decided to seek out some extra energy given Harrison's history with the Suns, who were starting him in preseason and then released him.
"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't circle it the day I got released," Harrison admitted. "It definitely was a game you look forward to. But they gave me a great opportunity here, my first time playing in the NBA, so I'll always have them in my heart."
Harrison is a weak offensive player, so much so that Boylen said his offensive improvement was just starting to look at the rim. "He didn't when he first came to us," Boylen said. So Boylen was taking a risk with such an offensively challenged backcourt, though Dunn has started to look for his shot more.
"What he's (Harrison) brought is a team first mindset," said Boylen. "He's a yes sir, no sir guy. He's admired and respected by his teammates for his work ethic and toughness. Comes every day ready to work, jersey tucked in, shoes tied up. He's just a hard working, tough guy. For the way I'd like it to be and the way we try to do things, he's the perfect guy for what we are trying to do."
Shaq Harrison's Bulls? OK, not quite that.
The Bulls would make just four three pointers for 116 points, a statistical rarity in today's NBA. Though after being swamped for 80 inside points by the Kings, the Bulls came back to hit the Suns with 76 points in the paint even with the presence of Ayton.
The Bulls also dominated the boards with Lauri Markkanen showing a bit more edge with 17 points and nine rebounds and had 20 second chance points as Zach LaVine was all around with 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
"We finally found some consistency together," said LaVine. "We came out better in the third quarter. That was big. I think the third quarter we were tied in points, so we stayed with the same lead. Shaq and KD battled on the defensive end and we were moving the ball. We're starting to have a little more fun after Sacramento where we got our (butts) kicked. You got to get back to having some fun."
Lopez with the putback dunk
So much so that the bench was particularly theatrical in response to several dunks, Felicio feigning a moment of fright after a second consecutive Lopez followup dunk in the third quarter and Markkanen with bulging eyes and his hands on his head on the Blakeney slam.
LaVine, the two-time dunk champion, was rating the dunks in the post game locker room.
"Shaq's was nice," LaVine said about a first quarter left-handed slam by the former Sun. "AB's? Really nice.
"Rolo's seven foot," LaVine pooh-poohed. "He's supposed to dunk. Maybe because he's back in Phoenix he tried to get up for the crowd one more time."
Heck, Dunn even threw in a Portis-esque flex after taking a hard foul and finishing a late three-point play.
An opponent didn't have to just read the scouting report of a Bulls league poorest defense over the last few weeks or seeing this incredible run of giving up more than 40 points almost every third quarter. With the second of a back to back after the humiliation in Sacramento, the Suns obviously figured they could run the heart out of the Bulls quickly.
But Boylen, showing a little bit of a soft side, drew up a first play for Harrison, who missed a reverse drive. And perhaps the Suns didn't appreciate Harrison's violent dunks as well. There was a curious late game kerfuffle, though Suns coach Igor Kokoskov denied it meant anything. Boylen called a timeout with 40.1 seconds left and the Bulls leading by 14. Boylen says he asks his players to play the entire 48, so he should coach it as well. So when the Bulls came out with five substitutes to try a play, the Suns fouled immediately so the Bulls couldn't. Nyaah, nyaah. Kokoskov then left the court with the clock running out to apparently avoid the now familiar coaches postgame wave.
Former Detroit Pistons players cheered.
Phoenix didn't appear to be having as much fun, though the Suns held onto the second poorest record. It's apparent the Bulls aren't looking at the lottery odds since the Cavaliers had won prior to the Bulls game, which meant a Bulls loss would have put the Bulls within a half game of the third poorest record. So the Bulls played their best game in almost two weeks.
And it was there from the start, Markkanen getting an open three and making an extra pass to Dunn in the corner, who made the three for the 17-10 start. It was 34-20 Bulls after one quarter with the much maligned Felicio finishing on a pair of pick and rolls and Harrison flying all over the court with that early dunk and on the way to four steals.
The reserves didn't falter this time (38-35 lead for the game) to start the second and fourth quarters. And then when the starters returned in the second quarter, the lead floated in the desert light air to 54-35 on a LaVine jitterbug drive and three-point play. After Boylen challenged them in Sacramento, the starters all had double-digit plus/minus ratings except Markkanen with plus-eight. Harrison was high at plus-17.
The Bulls led 56-39 at half and then after the Suns opened the third quarter with five straight points and a here-we-go-again moment, Markkanen took the ball hard and scored, Harrison shot up court on a fast break for a two-hand dunk and Lopez was scaring little kids and Felicio.
"Big time," said Lopez. "A lot of the best teams are the most dangerous coming out in the third quarter. I think we were great defensively, staying with our assignments and finishing with rebounds. Shaq's a dawg for us; he gets after it, makes a lot of big energy plays for us. We love having him here. During this whole stretch we've tried to be really together. We felt we weren't so together, especially in Sacramento. We were pretty united today."
The Bulls led 88-73 after three quarters and went the first half of the fourth quarter without any starters and didn't lose any margin. And then came Shaq flying down the sideline past Booker and Jackson.
"Jim, that's what he preaches, toughness," said Harrison. "I could have let the ball roll out, but I have the extra effort; he loves the extra effort."
It's a gift.