It was just one game, as the reminder goes, a 125-106 Bulls victory Friday over the Brooklyn Nets. But do we have to whisper it? There was something different about the Bulls. Playing a starting five of legitimate NBA starters for probably the first time in the past two years, the Bulls looked very much how an NBA team is supposed to look these days.
It was fun to see; heck, they even seemed to be having fun for a change.
“Obviously, the addition of Otto changes the way we look, how we play,” said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. “This team beat us three times. Defensively we needed to do a better job and I thought defensively for most of the game we were really good. Ham and egged them a little bit. (Kris) Dunn has a great third quarter, Zach (LaVine) had his moments in the fourth. I thought we looked like a team out there and played like a team.”
Which was much seconded.
“We looked like a good basketball team,” LaVine chimed in. “I don’t want to hang it too hard on one game. But we got a little bit of excitement right now.”
Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker had fun, also, the former Bulls who were traded to acquire Porter brilliant in a Washington win over Cleveland as Portis had 30 points and Parker barely missing a triple double.
“I think the Wizards got a steal in me and Jabari because we are two versatile bigs,” Portis told Wizards TV after the game.
So, good for them, as no one is about to wish ill upon the buoyant and positive Portis. And, finally, a must-see game Saturday with the Wizards in the United Center. Who said this season wasn’t going to have any fun?
It actually looks now like the Bulls just might have a lot of fun, except perhaps for those rooting for losses and better odds for the draft lottery. It’s not necessarily about the playoffs, but if the word tank is applied to this Bulls team, it’s likely more as a noun, a more sturdy machine. It’s the cost, if one sees it that way, of adding that free agent-type starter in February.
With LaVine, Dunn, Porter, Robin Lopez and Lauri Markkanen, the latter with his third consecutive game of at least 30 points, the Bulls can finally claim to start five NBA players who could be high level regulars for many NBA teams, an assertion the team probably could not make since the end of the ill-fated Butler-Wade-Rondo muddle.
Clearly there have been difficulties and circumstances since then, and certainly Portis when healthy played well. But with a surfeit of injuries to open this season after the start of a rebuilding last season with LaVine recovering from surgery and the coaching change and various incarnations of rotations and lineups, the Bulls never resembled what they did Friday in Brooklyn.
It was a Bulls team playing with alacrity and ardour, pushing the ball out of the backcourt with multiple ball handlers that included everyone but Lopez, and later all five when Markkanen moved to center with Porter at a stretch power forward. The driving lanes widened to six lane highways from the narrow one and two-lanes it often looked like.
It was evident on drives for Markkanen and LaVine, and clear in the first quarter with Lopez making a move inside. Which doesn’t come quickly. But Porter stepped to the corner, and his defender followed instead of crowding into lane to bother Lopez. Lopez made the easy layup.
“For me, just play hard; that’s how I play,” said Porter, who seemed to fit in seamlessly and had an efficient 18 points on seven of nine shooting with four of five threes. “Let the game come to me, watch these guys and play off of them.”
Porter as third option with ball dominant John Wall in Washington developed a reputation as a stand still corner shooter who was often passive. He didn’t get a shot attempt the first six minutes as the Bulls again took an early lead. But he made his first shot, a pull up three shortly after that as the Bulls led 32-27 after one quarter.
“First game was getting a feel for it, coaching staff and stuff like that,” said Porter. “They tried to keep it simple for me. Other guys talked to me to keep it simple and we go from there. It was nice to see that first one go in; got that out the way and then I could just play.”
Porter looked like he’s been with the team for years the way he moved smoothly into the right spots, helping space the court, taking advantage when the Nets tried a zone late, finishing a slashing drive on an interior pass and making the catch and shoot three.
“He was communicating already, picks up things quickly; to me that is what a pro is,” said Boylen about Porter. “He is a pro, he can step into a situation, has a comfort level, has a confidence, has positional size, has instincts, has been in big games, has a great spirit and I thought the guys responded to him well. He’s got an understanding of what good basketball is and what it looks like.”
Yes, with Bulls jerseys on as well.
LaVine had 26 points on a nifty 10 of 17 shooting and one of those dunk contest slams late in the first quarter on a transition break, LaVine with his back to the basket spinning around as he dunked. Fault him if you will; but no one on the team even thinks about doing things like that.
“It felt easy and it flowed,” said LaVine.
A lot of that downstream came from Dunn, who may just have gotten the message Thursday from team executive John Paxson in talking about the Porter acquisition. Paxson named four core Bulls that didn’t include Dunn. Paxson didn’t disregard Dunn, but, in effect, said it was time to show something. Or actually more.
Dunn had 14 points and nine assists, making three of four from the free throw line. It wasn’t that many free throw attempts, though it was for Dunn, his third biggest game of free throw attempts this season. Perhaps more significant was the way Dunn pushed the ball out of the backcourt after misses and makes. He had his head up looking to pass instead of walking the ball into the front court and looking for water spots. He was throwing ahead to the wing, the Bulls actually getting off shots before the defenders could set and order soft drinks while they waited for the Bulls to decide who would force a shot as the 24-second clock expired.
The Bulls even opened the game going to Dunn on a postup, a scheme they can use more often given his size and long arms against most point guards.
It’s an NBA thing, and then there was Markkanen, who quietly once again looked like what an NBA star should.
He is averaging 30.3 points and 12.3 rebounds the last three games after his 31 points and 18 rebounds against the Nets for the best three-game stretch of his short career.
Markkanen repeatedly as he has started to do lately took the ball off the backboard and dribbled full court, expediting a break or finishing on his own. For a relatively thin seven footer, he has an uncanny ability to take the hit and hang just long around to get off some sort of short fading shot. As he gets stronger and even gets to be 22, he might not even have to fade back as much.
“He’s smart; he knows if he rebounds it gets him into the game, so he’s trying to get every rebound he can,” Boylen said about Markkanen. “He’s settling less, he’s driving the ball more. I thought his aggressiveness is encouraging. When you get lost in the other parts of the game beside scoring, defense, rebounding, making the correct play, setting a good screen, I think it all comes back to you and I think it’s all coming back to him.”
Getting 21 points and 11 rebounds in a 70-point Bulls second half against a streaking Nets team that had won three straight over the Bulls looked like Markkanen never went anywhere.
The Bulls led 55-48 at halftime and pretty much dominated thereafter. They would finish with a 50-33 rebounding domination and 14 of 28 on threes, making one more three than the long distance Nets.
Dunn sent the Nets into a quick timeout early in the third quarter with a fast paced backcourt exit and wing pass to Porter for a pull up three. That gave the Bulls a 60-48 lead that the Nets messed with but never seriously disturbed as Markkanen added 11 points in the third quarter and Dunn had seven third quarter assists.
The Bulls led 93-80 after three quarters, and got some nice reserve play from Wayne Selden with a trio of three pointers and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot with six fourth quarter points in six minutes. And this time it was the Bulls determining how much of a blowout win they should make it in the fourth quarter.
Reporters weren’t forcing Markkanen into a turnover after the game regarding the presence of Porter.
“We had good guy scorers before the trade,” Markkanen responded diplomatically.
And Parker and Portis were mostly diplomatic in comments to Washington media Friday.
“Here will be a great opportunity for me,” Parker said. “When (Boylen) told me I was out of the rotation, I could have gone either way, either direction. I could have combatted, I could have argued. But instead I chose to focus on what I could do better and that’s what I did. And whenever my opportunity was presented, I tried to make the best out of that. I was doing my job. I didn’t let coach’s word become a distraction to my inner growth and my development.”
“It’s been crazy,” Portis added. “A lot of emotions up and down. Obviously, everybody knows how much I loved playing for the Bulls, really loved playing for the city of Chicago. It’s a business. I finally got my first taste of it. I found out 20 minutes before our game, stomach kind of dropped. I left the gym immediately. It was tough for me; I moved on now.”
Well, that was fast. And so were the Bulls against the Nets.
Porter also seems to have moved quickly, and seemingly right into a sweet spot with the Bulls, a true veteran player with playoff experience, poise and aplomb. One who seemed more familiar than foreign.
“Otto is really a good three option shooter and can guard, too.” said Markkanen. “I was at the five (late) and he at the four. It’s a good, different look for us. I’m glad he was with us. I’m excited to see what the future looks for us.”
Brighter, certainly for this one night. Now here comes Bobby and Jabari. That should also be fun. Smile, it’s a Bulls game.