The Bulls Saturday went on the road and seemed to leisurely dominate, an impressive 113-97 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in which the Bulls led the entire game and by as much as 25.
This season continues to be a study of the unexpected.
Sure, the Hawks fell to 13-32. But they were coming off three wins in the last four games, including home wins over the Spurs and Pelicans, the latter whom the Bulls play Monday. But the Hawks never really were truly competitive in the game, trailing 20-7 with the Bulls initial burst, behind by 17 at halftime and then with a 13-2 start to the fourth quarter making it 90-65.
The Bulls got 20 points from Robin Lopez, doing a bit of his Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook game. OK, maybe more George Mikan. The Hawks game plan was to thwart and smother Lauri Markkanen at the three-point line, and they did as he missed all four of his three-point attempts. So the sophisticated rookie ended up with six dunks with his 19 points.
"I know I can't just shoot threes," said Markkanen. "I've got to get to the rim. Eventually, that's going to open a lot more space for three pointers. So I try to mix it up."
The Bulls also got 14 points from Bobby Portis, 13 from Justin Holiday and 10 from Nikola Mirotic. But most of their points came in the fourth quarter with the game mostly decided. Zach LaVine shot poorly again with two of nine for eight points in just 18 minutes. But he led the team with nine rebounds and apparently no ill-effects.
Kris Dunn remained home with that concussion after his fall against the Warriors Wednesday.
Jerian Grant started for Dunn and was dependable with eight points, six assists and six rebounds. But the offense worked especially smooth with Denzel Valentine, who had nine points and five assists. Many more assists if they scored the hockey way as Valentine's penetration led to multiple passes on many possessions, the Bulls with 31 assists on 40 baskets. It was their highest assist percentage of the season. Valentine with nine points had a team leading plus-15. Where Valentine is able to excel is getting deeper into the paint than Grant, who is more scoring oriented. That served to collapse the Atlanta defense and open the lanes for easy scores.
Ryan Arcidiacono, up from the G-league with Dunn out, was also impactful with a pair of threes and four assists in flawlessly running the team.
Despite it's poor record, the Hawks are one of the league's more athletic teams and entered the game in the top 10 in steals, assists and three-point shooting. The Bulls ran the Hawks into unfathomable 11 of 48 shooting from three range with just five steals. The Bulls crushed them in inside scoring with a 46-34 edge, led in rebounding without anyone getting double digits and in assists without anyone more than Grant's six. Five Bulls players had at least four assists. Nine Bulls players had at least three rebounds and five at least five.
"I thought that we really played a complete game," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "I thought that we played with the right mentality. We went out there and we shared the ball, built a double digit lead right out the gate. Overall, a really complete performance by our guys. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
The Bulls remain well down in the Eastern Conference standings at 18-28. But that's now 15-8 since Mirotic's return and 3-1 with LaVine. And recently with narrow losses to the Warriors, Trailblazers and Cavaliers, the latter who gave up 148 points Saturday and seem without direction and lacking the spirit of the Bulls.
The Bulls' arrow appears to be pointing upward.
"A lot of credit to Chicago," conceded Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer. "They were the more aggressive team. They were the more physical team, the more active team. They played better than us in every facet of the game. We really wanted to take the three-point line away from Markkanen. I guess we won the battle and lost the war. It was a huge emphasis to try to get him to play inside the three-point line. Lopez was operating with a lot of space. You pay so much attention to Markkanen and Mirotic. They were just better than us in every way."
This growth of Markkanen remains quietly one of the best stories in the NBA, and certainly for the Bulls.
This European who seemed to be a project is looking like a serious rookie of the year contender. And not just because he is averaging 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, top four among rookies, with a league record for three pointers as a rookie. But it's a game like against Atlanta with the Hawks flying at Markkanen at the three-point line that shows his style and versatility.
The silky seven footer repeatedly dashed inside for lob dunks, driving dunks, dribbling dunks, a half dozen overall.
"I just try to be a complete player," said the stoic rookie. "That was their (defensive) game plan. But I can do much more than just shoot. I missed, I don't know how many, threes today. That wasn't going for me, so I figured I'd do something else."
Much easier said than actually done.
Markkanen's ability to handle the ball and adjust to the defense combined with an unforeseen potent nature that belies his narrow frame enables him to continue to produce even as defenses try to adjust to his play.
It's especially unusual for a rookie, and particularly someone who only played one year in the United States. But there have been a lot of surprises with this Bulls team.
The Hawks haven't been the pushover lately, but the Bulls pushed them all over to start. Both Lopez and Markkanen took advantage of their size as the Bulls were masterful getting the ball inside on mismatches for a 14-3 lead. Valentine then came in, driving the ball deep into the paint and passing to Lopez and Markkanen for dunks as the Bulls took a 20-7 lead.
"This (Atlanta) team had been playing really, really good basketball," noted Hoiberg. "We knew we had to come out of the gate with great effort and get off to a good start if we wanted to have a chance to win this game. They have great team speed. I thought early on we did a pretty solid job of getting back and part of that was that I thought we had good possessions. The ball was going through the net for us where we could get our transition defense and get set and guard them at half court. Overall awareness and, I thought, our urgency was really good and we did the basics really well."
While Grant is generally careful with the ball, leading to his usually excellent assist-to-turnover rate, he doesn't push the ball as quickly out of the backcourt as Dunn or Valentine. LaVine took some turns doing that, though with his poor shooting start (scoreless first half) he was kept under his expected 24 minutes. The Hawks got within 25-21 late in the first before the Bulls made some free throws for a 29-21 lead. Arcidiacono was clever in getting position on bigger players and being fouled. Arcidiacono is the relatively rare NBA player these days, likely because of his limited athletic ability, who is fundamentally sound with positioning and box outs. He is somewhat hesitant to shoot, but was unerring on his two three-point attempts, one to open the second quarter.
Valentine again getting deep got Grant a three to get the Bulls back up by 10 in the second quarter and then with an array of Lopez wheeling hooks, the Bulls took a 55-38 halftime lead. The Bulls had control the rest of the game with Markkanen making the big shots in the third quarter, a lob dunk on a Lopez pass—throw it down big man!—a Markkanen full court drive with a rebound for free throws and Markkanen with a two-hand dunk coming in on the baseline on a nifty Grant interior pass. The Bulls led 77-63 after three quarters and ended it with that 13-2 start to the fourth.
"We kind of like to play on the road," said Mirotic. "I don't know the reason. I think on the road we are playing better than at home."
The Bulls are 11-12 at home and 7-16 on the road. But since Mirotic's return, they are 6-4 on the road.
"We just came here and took care of business," said Mirotic. "We knew it was going to be an important game for us after a tough loss against Golden State. I think that game we played well and that gave us confidence that we can beat any team in this league."