The Bulls started strong and led 35-19 after the first quarter, ultimately defeating the Hawks with a resounding 116-81 win.
Lauri Markkanen was sick.
Certainly, as the jargon goes these days, Markkanen was awesome Saturday the way he led the Bulls with 25 points, making four of nine three pointers in the Bulls' ringing 116-81 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
Markkanen actually was sick, fever and an enervating stomach bug that had had been bugging him the past few days. But Markkanen was ready to answer the ringing bell for his team.
"Maybe not 100 percent, but when are you 100 percent with how many games you have?" Markkanen shrugged. "Laying down trying to get my energy back. Able to move around yesterday; so knew this morning I'd play. Stomach illness, a little bit of fever. But (not since) Thursday night. So I was good to go."
Video Recap: Bulls 116, Hawks 81
And indeed Markkanen was ready and set. Would he tire? Heck, the way he was going the Hawks had to think they had a tractor trailer tire rolling over them. When you're feeling like that sometimes you feel like you are going to die. But the die was cast by Markkanen early in the game, back-to-back threes at the end of a 14-0 run that gave the Bulls a 24-9 lead. The Bulls would lead 35-19 after the first quarter. And then Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the latter with 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists, combined for a 9-0 run that gave the Bulls a 20-point lead midway through the second quarter.
Markkanen was quick to shoot on the catch for a three, no longer hesitating as he was earlier this season. LaVine flicked off a three like he was waving goodbye to a child, the Hawks grounded while playing without their star guard, Trae Young. Markkanen then sprinted ahead of the Hawks for a three-point play on a long bounce pass from LaVine.
Inside the Locker Room with Lauri Markkanen
"Another rough night in Chicago," said Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. "They are a very aggressive defensive team. They are a tough team."
That's right, the Bulls.
Sure, it was the 6-27 worse-than-the-Knicks Atlanta Hawks playing without Young and Jabari Parker and Vince Carter zero for four in his final game in Chicago. United Center fans gave him several ovations suggesting insanity throughout the game and in his final exit, though he is half the man now. The Bulls are 13-20. But the victory gave them their first winning month in two years at 7-6. It was nice for a change to be getting well instead of being in the deep well of the Eastern Conference. "We wanted to come out and have a big first quarter and we did that," said LaVine. "We got out to a big lead, ran our offense well. We got out on the break (25-8 margin), got into the penalty early, played pretty good defense. So it feels good to have a pretty easy win. We just have to learn how to close out games and sustain our leads. We've been in a lot of those games. I think at least in the top five of one or two-possession games where we could have won the game. We know we've given some up, but we're still playing and we're competing."
But now comes the hard part with the Bucks in the United Center Monday after five consecutive games against teams with losing records and seven of the last eight. To paraphrase Ralph Kramden, homina, homina, homonym.
"We don't care who's playing," said Markkanen. "We just have to play harder than them."
And so comes the test with the next four games against the Bucks, Jazz, Celtics and Mavericks, the start of a 17-game January slog that could match the Bulls with playoff teams or light the match that burns down their season.
The Bulls now are in ninth in the Eastern Conference, a game and a half behind Orlando.
The Bulls lost in Orlando just before their Christmas break, a game that still rubs them raw. But a game players say won't break them. Yes, that's the rub.
"That was a game we needed," LaVine repeated about Orlando. "I was taking it serious. That was as upset as I've been over a game. It's a game we were competing for that seventh, eighth spot. We knew how big of a game Orlando was and that one hurt. So we got back on the same page. We came in the day after Christmas, we got a pretty good practice. We came in (Saturday) and did what we had to do. Now, we have to get ready for Milwaukee. Obviously, a top team in the league. We played them well (nine-point November loss after leading at halftime). We know what they're about."
The Bucks are about 29-5, the best record in the NBA. So they're not exactly the target for the Bulls quite yet. And not about to be that concerned. But the Bulls scored a Bulls-eye Saturday with their largest victory margin in two years, a season sweep of the Hawks, six players scoring in double figures and this time continuing to build the lead into the 30s after leading by 18 to start the fourth quarter. Bulls coach Jim Boylen kept the starters in the game until about five minutes left and the Bulls leading 104-76.
"We talked about it before the game and we talked about it at halftime," said Boylen. "We have been here before and we need to take care of business. A lot of guys were talking, chattering. They were that way in Orlando, too, to be honest with you. We were focused in Orlando and ready to play. I think we are growing. I think they are understanding how important every possession is."
The defense remained stingy, Kris Dunn with three more steals among the team's 13. Wendell Carter made a pair of threes for 40 percent of his season total and Tomas Satoransky had 11 points, eight rebounds six assists and three steals. Coby White had 18 points on eight of 11 field goals, but he had five turnovers, most when he was trying to make passes as a facilitator.
"I was frustrated early with the turnovers," said Boylen. "We got better as the game went on. But we've got to continue to watch that."
The Bulls made 15 of 31 threes and without John Collins' 34 points, the Hawks may have had to surrender their franchise.
"We've talked about how we've given up leads this year, so we just tried to pad it," said Markkanen. "I am more comfortable. I kind of know where I am going to get my touches and shots. Playing with the same guys in the system (the same starting five since late November) and, obviously, we work on it every day so it has to become comfortable at some time. I think everybody is figuring out their role and doing a good job of it, knowing when to attack and knowing our system and where the open guy is going to be even if the play hasn't happened yet.
"Obviously, we have stuff we can improve," said Markkanen. "But it does feel good to close a couple of games out, actually get the win. We're not satisfied. We were supposed to win this game and we did a good job tonight and now try to get one Monday."
No one promised the Bulls a rose garden. Certainly not since Derrick Rose was injured and then traded. But they just might be starting to rise and perhaps finally to smell like a rose once again.