For a guy who loves the cold so much Lauri Markkanen said seeing it snow last week in Chicago made him happier than he’d been lately, the Bulls seven-foot rookie sure flourishes in the desert.
Markkanen Sunday set new career highs for points with 26 and rebounds with 13 in his return to Arizona, where he attended college for one year. But it wasn’t enough to cool off the hot Phoenix Suns, who burned the Bulls 113-105.
The Bulls fell to 3-11 and play the Lakers Tuesday on the second stop of their Western Conference road trip. They play in Utah Wednesday and at Golden State Friday.
But they’ll do better for now if they can find the big kid from Finland.
"Against switching we had him a couple of times where he had a point guard buried on his back and we didn’t get him the ball on the high/low," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "Lot of times he’s open in that opposite slot coming down in the trail position. We’re putting in new actions pretty much every day for him getting the ball in different spots on the floor. But, again, we’ve got to make a play when he’s open. High/lows were there for us. We just couldn’t complete the play. I do like a lot of the spots that Lauri is getting the ball on the floor. But when he’s got it rolling like that, we’ve got to make it a point to find him.”
The problem is the point with Jerian Grant having a tough game with a team worst minus-15 on plus/minus. Grant had two points, two assists and two turnovers in 21 minutes. Robin Lopez had 16 points and 10 rebounds and Justin Holiday had 13 points, but a brutal five of 20 shooting. Markkanen was 10 of 18, though one of six in the fourth quarter when he appeared to be forcing some shots after going unnoticed so often.
Kris Dunn off the bench had another good game with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, though he did make a crucial turnover with 1:16 left and the Bulls having fought back from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to within 108-103.
But Dunn hurrying up the left side stumbled and began to lose the ball. He regained it still unsteady and tried a behind the back pass that went out of bounds. After the Suns made two free throws for a 110-103 lead with 56.3 seconds left, Holiday stepped out of bounds along the baseline trying to make a pass to effectively end the Bulls chances.
“It was a two possession game---1:20 left---we threw a behind-the-back pass,” lamented Hoiberg. “That just can’t happen with two guys open. Two of our better shooters and we throw it out of bounds and then on the next possession down, we had another shooter open in the corner and we couldn’t make the play. So you have two key turnovers late that just can’t happen if you want to win a game like this on the road.”
But as annoyed as Hoiberg was with the late turnovers, the fourth for Dunn, it was Dunn making so many spectacular plays with two more steals and the best defense on Suns star Devin Booker almost all season. Booker was just five of 15.
Dunn had a terrific pass on a daring fast break that netted Bobby Portis a three-point play and 37-30 Bulls lead after one quarter. The Bulls would give that back quickly with a 7-0 Suns run to start the second quarter.
“That’s when we have to extend,” said Hoiberg,
The Suns led 61-56 at halftime as the Bulls fell again into too many quick perimeter shots instead of penetrating. But the Bulls grabbed back an 80-77 lead late in the third quarter on a Dunn dominating sequence with a driving dunk, baseline fadeaway and then another dunk after a steal.
In his last six games even with three points and one of 11 shooting against the Thunder, Dunn is averaging 13.8 points, five rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals. He leads the team in spectacular defensive plays and fast break dunks. He’s perhaps not great for a coach’s blood pressure with the loose ball handling at times, but he seems to more than make up for it with the pressuring defense and growing number of strong moves to the basket.
“I think as the games come I’m going to get more comfortable; more playing time enables me to adjust to the game,” said Dunn. “Just being confident; if you want to be successful you have to be confident and that’s something I try to instill in myself, get my swagger back.
It was mostly encouraging for the Bulls to see the Kris Dunn out there who they thought they were getting, the defensive spider who is giving the team some pressuring defense and fast break scores. Though there wasn’t enough of that all around as the Suns had 19 fast break points (12 for the Bulls) and a massive 64-40 edge on inside points as the Bulls again failed too often in transition. Also, again, too many of those quick threes.
“The difference in the game was our inability to get back,” said Hoiberg. “First play of the game, we stab for the ball and they get a fast break dunk. We talked before the game if we are not going to get back in transition we might as well not even show up; it was too easy for them all night long.”
It also seemed so easy for Markkanen, who continues to impress with his sophisticated game for a rookie, but also with a slick fadeaway postup jumper that was unguardable.
“I’ve always had it,” Markkanen shrugged. “Just haven’t shown it that much.”
Markkanen said he shot that a lot in high school, though not in college because of the style they played at the U. of Arizona. Markkanen said everyone should have watched more film of him from high school. He didn’t appear to be joking.
Told everyone has been more accustomed to seeing him shooting primarily face up threes, Markkanen said, “That’s an easy shot for me as well because I am taller than my defender. I can get space. I feel that’s a pretty easy shot for me.”
As he said in training camp, he certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.
The only thing he seems to lack, at times, is the ball.
Markkanen is an intelligent player for a rookie, quick to read his advantages in pick and roll situations. It’s just that the Bulls wing players haven’t been as quick to recognize Markkanen’s advantages, which are frequent. Though Markkanen seemed undaunted.
“It’s a game; sometimes they see you, sometimes they don’t,” said Markkanen. “They switch and that means there is a mismatch on him (teammate), too. We have to look at that as well. It’s a team game and you try to do the best you can at that moment.”
Markkanen has done well in many moments.
He was six of nine shooting in the first half, his shot so smooth you get the sense of butter melting on a hot roll. It just sinks in. He had it going in the third quarter, but got just three shots — he made all of those three — in just under 10 minutes. The Bulls had a big chance to take control of the game late in the third after Lopez got into a minor scuffle with T.J. Warren, who led the Suns with 27 points. Warren came up behind Lopez and smacked him with a forearm. The Suns were leading 76-73 at the time as Lopez got a technical foul for running afoul of Warren previously and Warren a flagrant foul.
“I was just pursuing that offensive rebound,” explained the cerebral former Sun. “Accidently hit someone in the head, I think. I was just trying to go for the ball. Wasn’t sure what happened. They told me I got a technical because I hit someone in the head. I asked them if intent mattered or not. I think this time they were saying it did not. It didn’t seem very consistent, but I am going to save my (fine) money. I don’t think there was anything dirty.”
But that was the Bulls’ time.
Dunn finished that run with a dunk and driving score and Bobby Portis a postup for an 84-79 Bulls lead with 1:53 left in the third quarter. The Bulls then missed seven straight shots, four of them jumpers with Markkanen taking none.
That enabled the Suns to lead 85-84 going into the fourth quarter. The Bulls opened the fourth with three more missed jumpers to make it 10 straight misses and suddenly it was 100-93 Phoenix with seven minutes left. Denzel Valentine and Markkanen made threes after that, but the Suns cleaned up some loose balls for scores and then those last two turnovers were fatal.
“They got a couple of loose balls and we had a couple of pretty bad turnovers when it was a two-possession game,” noted Markkanen. “We have to do work early and shouldn’t be in that position.”
With Dunn beginning to show and Markkanen excelling, the Bulls position may be improving. They hope to get good news Monday when Zach LaVine visits the doctor in Los Angeles. Perhaps a Big Three before too long? And not just three wins.