The formula for a championship run in the NBA supposedly is a strong finish to the season--to say nothing about a strong Finn--and getting hot down the stretch. Like the Bulls who Tuesday won their third consecutive game, 120-114 over the Charlotte Hornets?
Well, those first five months really do count. For the Bulls, it was too many losses and disqualification from this season's playoffs.
But the Bulls haven't given up or given in. And with Lauri Markkanen continuing his sizzling play with 24 points in 24 minutes and Sean Kilpatrick in his fifth game with the Bulls scoring 19 fourth quarter points, the Bulls six times down the stretch saw the Hornets get within one point but never trailed throughout an exhilarating and electrifying close.
"When you go out and play hard and play the right way and play unselfishly, good things happen," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, back after missing one game with illness. "You want your guys to go out and compete at the highest level and we are doing that, really across the board right now. I love the spirit of our team. I love how our young guys are competing and that's what we've talked about everything day, competing at highest level. You have to give our guys credit for doing that."
Perhaps not everyone is giving those guys credit given interest in the draft lottery and odds for the poorest record.
The Bulls, matching their best winning stretch since late December, raised their record to 27-51, which is tied with New York for eighth poorest.
"We're trying to go out and win every game," said Markkanen. "I hope we can keep this thing going."
Markkanen made five three pointers for the second consecutive game and in the last four games in 24 minutes per game sitting out the fourth quarters, Markkanen is averaging 20.5 points. Kilpatrick had 21 points overall. Justin Holiday had 19, Bobby Portis 16, Jerian Grant 13 and David Nwaba 10 and a team high nine rebounds. Cameron Payne led with seven assists among the Bulls' 26. The Bulls were 15 of 34 on threes after making 18 threes in Sunday's win over Washington and got 51 points off the bench.
For the third consecutive game, the Bulls hurtled down the stretch with a lineup that included Kilpatrick, Cristiano Felicio, Ryan Arcidiacono, Grant and Nwaba or Noah Vonleh against the opposition starters. The Bulls, nonetheless, averaged 28 points and outscored those opposition regulars by about six points per fourth quarter.
"Just competing with these guys every day; it's something special when you have a group of guys like this, very probably one of the closest teams I've ever been on," said Kilpatrick. "They just want to see everybody do well; that's something that's real exciting about this group."
This Bulls Bizarro world continues with almost half the regular roster out.
Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Antonio Blakeney already were declared out for rest of the season with injury. Denzel Valentine joined them Tuesday when an MRI revealed a knee problem. He will have surgery Wednesday. Paul Zipser remained out with a foot problem and Vonleh left in the second half with a calf injury. Plus, Robin Lopez was kept out in conjunction with testing out the younger big men.
So there were the Hornets down the stretch in a retaliatory fourth quarter in which the Hornets nearly a dozen times got within one basket and with mostly Kilpatrick, but also Felicio, Holiday and Grant making clutch baskets. The Bulls most effective lineup during the game included Payne, Felicio and Nwaba.
"It's been a learning process," said Markkanen. "Build that chemistry with everybody."
So this continues to be one of the most confusing, confounding, convoluted and complex of Bulls seasons, losing historically, then winning surprisingly and then going without basically every starter and playing some of their best basketball of the season.
And lately thanks to the 28-year-old Kilpatrick, a feisty 6-4 shooting guard who said the Bulls have perhaps the most welcoming team atmosphere he's ever been around.
And Kilpatrick would know, this being his sixth NBA team to go with a pair of G-league teams since being undrafted out of Cincinnati in 2014.
"I just continually play hard and the best thing about it is when you have a group of guys who want to continue to see you do well and keep feeding you the ball when you are doing well; that speaks a lot about this team," said Kilpatrick. "It (six of 12 shooting fourth quarter with three of four threes and four of five free throws) was something special for me. But when you have guys like this, it makes it easier for you.
"When I came in here the first person was Zach," Kilpatrick related. "He said, ‘Don't look at this like no tryout. You've been in this league before, so go out and be you.' That was something that made things easier for me. Just focus on the moment. Right now I am a Chicago Bull, and the best thing about it is I am with a group of guys having fun and I am having fun, too.
"It's a different bond, especially off the court," Kilpatrick explained. "Probably one of the first teams I've been on we come from practice and next thing you know we are at each other's houses. For me, I'm in the hotel, so I go to everyone else's house. It's pretty cool. They invite you over, like, ‘Come watch the (NCAA) game. Me, Antonio and Bobby. This is something different for me. I never had the opportunity of going to teammates' house to chill. (Often) Bobby's.
It's real good. You have a lot of guys who want to get better."
And this is the third string.
This time it was a leaden start for the Bulls, trailing 22-19 after one quarter, though Markkanen was torrid again, the offense with better spread and movements behind Payne and later Arcidiacono. Markkanen was releasing his shot more quickly, but he also was more involved. It will be a reminder for the likes of Dunn and LaVine when the three finally begin playing together. Markkanen is such a good shooter and spaces the floor so well that it will be vital for the Bulls regulars and coaches to search him out more than he often was earlier this season.
"Lauri is obviously shooting the ball really well," acknowledged Hoiberg. "He's playing with confidence, great purpose. We're just doing a lot of simple things. Not running set plays for him, but getting a lot off the movement. He's attacking closeouts, getting into the paint. He's doing a really good job and his teammates are finding him."
Markkanen had 10 first quarter points and 18 by halftime, the Bulls generally sitting all their top players in the fourth quarter lately. The Bulls taking a 53-47 halftime lead had some terrific sequences in that second quarter, like when Arcidiacono passed ahead to Kilpatrick who dropped off a pass for a Portis dunk. Payne, similarly, found Markkanen running ahead for a three-point play. Payne continue to impress with his fast paced play putting speed in the offense. The Bulls had nine steals, three by Holiday, leading to 20 Charlotte turnovers for 28 points and 13 fast break Bulls points. It was evident in that third quarter as the Bulls took a 12-point lead and then led 86-79 going into the fourth quarter.
But Charlotte's Malik Monk made four consecutive three pointers in a 12-2 Charlotte run that tied the game at 93 with 8:47 left. Monk later had the play of the game, a spectacular, driving baseline, double pump dunk to bring Charlotte within 106-104 with 4:34 left.
And then with a few exceptions like a Holiday three, a Grant pullup and a Nwaba pass to Felicio for a dunk, it was Kilpatrick driving, getting to the free throw line and the big shots with his pullup three with 3:20 left to make it 113-109 and his three on top of the floor to make it 118-114 with 56 seconds left.
Kilpatrick is averaging 13 points and has scored in double figures in four of his five games with the Bulls
"Sean does a lot of things," said Hoiberg. "Fits well with what we try to do, not afraid of any moment, hitting big shots, the three when they cut to one and going to compete on the other end of the floor. We like what we've seen from Sean, the ability to step up and take and make big shots. It's important to have guys like that."
Then Kilpatrick went to do the brief post game on court interview with Bulls host Steve Kashul. Blakeney and Grant snuck up behind and dumped cups of water on his head in the simpler version of the Gatorade bucket.
Just having a ball.
Sean Kilpatrick? Ryan Arcidiacono? Cameron Payne? Cristiano Felicio? Really?