So you figure the Bulls were sitting around after Wednesday's late game loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a game in which the team's leading active scorer, Lauri Markkanen, had just six shot attempts with top scorers Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker out. And Bobby Portis joining them for perhaps two to four weeks with a sprained ankle sustained in that game.
And somebody probably noticed, "What about Markkanen? You know, he can score."
And Markkanen certainly did Friday, recording a season high 32 points on a variety of long and short shots, drives and one fabulous kasvosi in the Bulls 90-80 victory over the Orlando Magic. Robin Lopez added 14 points off the bench while Kris Dunn had 12 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Justin Holiday had 11 points and 10 rebounds, Wendell Carter Jr. had 10 points and Ryan Arcidiacono led the team with eight assists.
That kasvosi—Finnish for "in your face"—was the finish Markkanen had in the third quarter over Orlando center Nikola Vucevic, the driving slam dunk punctuated with a Markkanen yell and look that drew a taunting technical foul. The Ferocious Finn?
Lauri taunting? Don't confuse his cool mask with his burning ambition.
Actually, Markkanen's mostly more humble and mischievous with a puckish sense of humor, correcting a post game interviewer about him being superstitious by saying he's really just "stitious." You know, cut the super stuff. But he looked like he was faster than a speeding bullet with that attack on Vucevic.
"Time was running low on the shot clock," Markkanen explained about getting the ball with just four seconds left.
Orlando had closed off Dunn and then Arcidiacono on penetration. So Arcidiacono from the left elbow fired out to Markkanen above the three-point line in the middle. Consider also the calculations Markkanen was making with four bleats on the clock.
Jonathan Isaac tried to steal the pass, but missed, thus giving Markkanen a lane down the right side. Markkanen had to be quick, and in a hurry.
"He kind of gambled on it and I had the advantage," Markkanen related. "I had two options. Either pass to Wendell (along the left baseline), but I thought, ‘He's not coming up to me.' I tried to stay aggressive. He got me on the first time (on an earlier attempted dunk). So just try to get him back."
It was just one play and with Orlando's technical foul shot, the Bulls only led 56-49. But it was yet another glimpse of the possibilities the Bulls do have with the skill and versatility of the multi-talented seven footer. Markkanen's early season (for him) breakout game came in the wake of Dunn scoring 24 points in two of the team's previous three games as LaVine and his 23.8 per game scoring average watched in a suit with his sprained ankle.
The victory enabled the Bulls to move to 8-25 and tied for poorest record in the league with the Cleveland Cavaliers, whom the Bulls visit 5 p.m. Sunday.
"We haven't had a winning streak yet," Markkanen noted. "So maybe we will have one now."
Yes, for the Bulls it remains all about hope and the possibilities with the threesome who have rarely been together due to injuries. Markkanen after the game even credited LaVine for his encouragement during the game when Markkanen, as the game plan priority after being overlooked against the Nets, missed six of his first seven shots.
"Got to give props to Zach LaVine," Markkanen said in his on court post game interview with NBCSports. "He told me to keep going; I would have done that, anyway, but I appreciate him telling me that."
It suggests perhaps how much closer the Bulls may be to becoming a team not only because of the way Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn appear anxious to work together, but what each is capable of. That with the physical support from rookie Carter. Sure, 8-25 seems far away. But perhaps they finally are getting closer to playing together. It's the goal for the rest of this Bulls season.
"Just getting my legs back under me," acknowledged Markkanen about his return from an elbow injury just three weeks ago. "I feel I have some explosiveness, but obviously it was a long time I was out. Now I feel fresher. I think we have a talented team. We have multiple guys who can (score). If Zach's out and I'm missing my shots, Kris Dunn is going to take care of it. We have plenty of guys who can do that.
"I know I'm a good shooter, and if the shot's not falling at the start, I'm just going to play defense and do other stuff," said Markkanen. "I know it's going to start falling."
The Bulls even with LaVine's scoring eruption to start the season with Markkanen, LaVine and Portis hurt have envisioned Markkanen as their unicorn, a crafty seven footer, sublimely tough and conspicuously skilled.
"He's a great kid, he's coachable," acknowledged Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "He wants to do the right thing. He's only been back for what is it, eight games or something (actually 10)? So it's going to be a process. He's still a young player, but he was competitive and he was aggressive. When you're that big and that skilled you've got a chance to have a good game. And he did. He's special and he cares. He's a good player."
Just how good perhaps the Bulls finally will begin to find out as Markkanen's health improves. LaVine said he remains hopeful he can return in another week or so, though Portis now is out. Cameron Payne was out Friday with a calf problem. Boylen said Jabari Parker wasn't ready to play after his stomach illness from the Mexico trip last week. G-league two-way player Tyler Ulis had a hip arthroscopy and was replaced as a two-way player by Brandon Sampson from LSU.
"The best thing is that it wasn't my knee again," Portis said earlier Friday. "Obviously ankles are just things that happen all the time in basketball. We had a lot of injuries this year, things we couldn't control. But we've got tough minded players on our team that really care and (are) trying to get back out there as fast as possible."
But the Bulls Friday got a peek at potential with Markkanen's scoring and Dunn's leadership.
"Kris Dunn, I thought, had unbelievable poise in the pocket," said Boylen. "I thought he had command of what I want and we had great synergy. I felt like I had a captain out there, a leader out there with him, and I'm really happy for that."
"When you're that big and that skilled you've got a chance to have a good game. And he did. He's special and he cares. He's a good player."
- Coach Boylen on Lauri Markkanen
This was a game the Bulls controlled after holding the Magic without a field goal the first five minutes of the second quarter. That enabled the Bulls to take a 32-21 lead after trailing 20-19 to end the first quarter.
The 13-1 Bulls run to open the second quarter included three Markkanen three pointers, and he was off and shooting.
"He's a great player for us," noted Dunn. "There should be in no right mind why he shouldn't be aggressive for us, especially with the talent he has. When he's aggressive, especially when he's playing well, that betters the team."
But Markkanen hasn't always had the opportunities in his return, which coincided with Boylen replacing coach Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls going more to a defensive style. The Bulls have scored more than 100 points just once in Boylen's nine games.
Instead of the so called "pace and space" emphasized by Hoiberg with outlet passing and transition, Boylen emphasizes slowing the offense with patterned play and an inside/outside effect. Players are trying more now to get into the paint, mostly by dribble, and then pass out, resulting in an obvious adjustment period. Plus, with a slower pace, there's less multiple player movement with more pick and roll or pick and pop actions.
Markkanen in previous games had thus found himself doing more standing on the perimeter. Boylen promised to alter that for Friday's game by using Markkanen in more places in the floor. Still without as much ball movement, it does leave Markkanen to attempt a lot of tough shots. But he happens to be able to make tough shots, though not to start Friday. But once he found the netting with those threes to open the second quarter, Markkanen began to get inside on drives and cuts.
"Just tried to stay confident," said Markkanen. "Stay aggressive and I know my shot is going to start falling soon. I think I can do multiple things. Take one thing away from me and I think I can do other stuff. I think we did a good job recognizing their coverages."
The Bulls led 46-39 at halftime after one of the best offensive sequences for Carter lately with three straight scores after a Markannen rolling dunk. Lopez added several short hooks and even a three he celebrated with a tribute to Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Who else but Lopez to play the whimsical part?
The Bulls' defensive effort continues to share top billing lately with Shaquille Harrison adding three blocks to complement his pressure defense and presence in the passing lanes. Which suggests even when he's back in shape, Boylen may not play Parker even with LaVine out. Boylen has been emphasizing that determined defensive effort with cautious offense—just 10 turnovers and 40-24 Bulls scoring in the paint—and it gave the Bulls an 81-66 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Orlando finally found a run with a 14-4 surge until Markkanen nattily created space and pulled up for a 17 footer with 40.8 seconds left to end the Magic's aspirations.
"I got to the middle and that's a pretty easy shot for me that close to the rim and knocked it down," Markkanen said.
Yes, just like that. Sometimes it doesn't seem all that far away.