Bulls Lose to Rockets, But Markkanen Plays as Injured Bulls Start to Return

Michael Jordan didn’t win in his long awaited return game, either.

“Just glad to be out there,” Lauri Markkanen, the absent power forward said Saturday in his first game of the season after an elbow injury, a 121-105 Bulls loss to the Houston Rockets. “I missed some easy shots, but I think I played some decent defense, and that’s where I tried to make an impact. I’m not worried about my shots. I just have to get my legs back.”

The Bulls are grateful the rest of him is coming along even if it was the team’s sixth consecutive loss and 10th in the last 11 to drop to 5-19. With Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis expected to practice with the Windy City Bulls next week in anticipation of a return perhaps a week after that, the Bulls can both look forward to a restart of this season and perhaps the first day of the rest of their franchise’s future.

Someone put that on a coffee mug!

“It’s going to be awesome,” Markkanen predicted. “We just need to get some run together. I haven’t played in two something months, so it’s hard to say. But I think it’s going to be good.”

The Bulls can only hope.

It was a hesitant return for Markkanen coming off the bench and playing 26 minutes. He airballed his first shot on a post up and ended up with 10 points and four rebounds on four of 14 shooting.

“I felt good, and I had no problems with my elbow,” said Markkanen. “That’s a positive. I was surprised (on my wind) that it was pretty good.”

His teammates, though, didn’t do a very good job recognizing him despite the seven footer being dressed like they were. Markkanen was often ignored with mismatches against small guards in the Rockets’ switch-everything scheme. Though Markkanen wasn’t always so great when he had those opportunities, taking some fadeaway shots against smaller players. His shot looked smooth as he wore a wrap on his right arm. He often seemed to move around with teammates as if he hadn’t played the last nine weeks.

The Bulls were led by Zach LaVine with 29 points on a smooth 11 of 17 shooting and Jabari Parker with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Justin Holiday was the only other Bull scoring in double figures with 11 points, but on four of 13 shooting and one of eight on threes. Though Holiday extended his franchise long streak of making a three, his accuracy has abandoned him again. He’s five of 24 on threes the last three games and nine of 32 overall. The Bulls were eight of 32 on threes Saturday.

Meanwhile, Parker continues to improve, and it’s not so much a small sample anymore. The brusque Chicagoan is averaging 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds the last 13 games and a reasonable 34 percent on threes.

Which should be one of the many intriguing decisions for Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg these next few weeks as the reinforcements finally appear.

Parker had been slated to play small forward to begin the season, but he started so obviously indifferent that he went to the bench for Holiday. Then Markkanan was hurt and Parker returned to start at power forward, though still indifferently. But that started to change in a dramatic way as Parker has been playing, especially on offense, at a high level for almost the last month. It’s assumed that Markkanen returns to starting power forward for Tuesday’s game in Indiana, and some even wondered why bring Markkanen off the bench Saturday. Though there’s time with 58 games remaining.

So put Parker back to the bench, which he clearly didn’t like and which seemed to impact his play? Or move Holiday back to a reserve role, which was long planned. Parker is clearly the more talented and versatile player, but that also might be a reason for him to be with the reserves.

The Bulls reserves have been outplayed just about every game for the last month. Parker has been both scorer and playmaker, so perhaps he could become a desperately needed scorer and facilitator for them. There have been so few players to create their own shot off the bench, especially now that Antonio Blakeney seems out of the rotation after some poor shooting and defensive games. Rookie Chandler Hutchison works hard on defense, but shows little offense and Shaquille Harrison recently came off missing 17 straight shots over five games. Cameron Payne missed every shot he attempted Saturday, four from the field and two from the free throw line.

The Bulls have fallen into a pattern again of poor starts, Saturday falling behind 38-22 after the first quarter and trailing by double digits except for a few seconds the rest of the first half. LaVine gave the Bulls a kick start to get within 56-46 at halftime and then teamed with Parker, both running the floor and pushing the ball, LaVine late in the quarter with fabulous driving two hand dunk. It all helped the Bulls cut Houston’s lead to four points early in the third quarter. But some sloppy play and a few open threes that wouldn’t fall stalled the Bulls. The Rockets regained double digit control and kept a steady distance from the Bulls the rest of the game.

James Harden led Houston with 30 points and it didn’t help that Wendell Carter Jr. after a career high Friday seemed absolutely exhausted. He constantly was beaten down court by Rockets big man Clint Capella, who had 18 points and 15 rebounds. It was a rare lethargy from the Duke rookie, though the Bulls figure to be looking more to how he fits and with whom.

“I’m excited to get a bigger sample size with all the lineups and see which work best,” said Hoiberg. "I loved Jabari’s aggressiveness and thought he played very well. I think he and Lauri can play well together and I think Lauri can play very well with Wendell. I think that’s the future of this franchise, those two guys on your front line and great to have Jabari out there with him. We have to get (Parker) reacclimated about playing some three. He’s one of the more talented players on this roster, so you have to get some lineups practicing together and get them used to one another.”

LaVine, Parker, Carter and Markkanen seems like the most proficient group until the return of Dunn to join them. So another question that will be relevant all season and into the summer when the Bulls have to make a decision on Parker likely will be whether he can be a starting wing player. He says he is and that he believes there’s little difference between the forward positions. He’s right to an extent as the power forwards move to the three-point line now in the NBA, as Markkanen does. Markkanen probably is the Bulls best pure long distance shooter, though LaVine is very good.

However, Holiday has shown a knack for making spot up threes, which should be more available with ball movement and the spacing that should be better with the return of Markkanen to join LaVine. Or play Parker with them because he’s more talented? And because you have a better chance of winning when you have a lead.

Oh, right, the games. The Bulls continue to do not so great in them, which LaVine has noticed.

“Lauri did a good job,” said LaVine. “It’s his first game and I’m glad to have him back out there and be with the guys. Now, we have to get him back in shape, and back out there playing the way he does. He was telling me all the things he was disappointed in his play. I was just happy to see him out there, told him, ‘It don’t matter, man.’

“We still have to go out there and play,” LaVine noted.”What are we, 5-18 (corrected to 5-19)? So we get one person back, but teams (still are) looking at us like it’s a win. We love to have Lauri back out there, and it’s a great feeling. But we still have to go out there and compete. In the first half, Jabari had it going. And then late in the third, I got it going. So we just need to as a unit make more plays. We’re not good enough right now to have that many mistakes. We have to keep the score close to fight back where it’s a fightable chance. We have ups and down. Sometimes we go out there and it doesn’t look right, doesn’t look good. We’ll get some of those dudes back and see what we are really about.”