Fred Hoiberg's seen a lot in his NBA playing and coaching career, there for Reggie Miller's game saving shots and flamboyant bows, the fabulous seventh game of the conference finals in 1998 with the Pacers and Bulls, Kevin Garnett's rage and so many of Jimmy Butler's saves. But Hoiberg isn't sure he's reacted quite the way he did when Lauri Markkanen practically took seven footer Enes Kanter through the basket with a driving, cocked wrist, power slam dunk in Wednesday's Bulls exhilarating 122-119 double overtime victory over the New York Knicks.
It was a game of plays to make you gasp, from David Nwaba's game saving block in regulation on Michael Beasley to Kristaps Porzingis matching that on the next play against Markkanen and Porzingis' driving dunk at the first overtime buzzer to tie the game. There was Markkanen with eight three pointers and his second career high game in two weeks with 33 points. Denzel Valentine with a career high 20 and Kris Dunn outlasting a miserable four of 18 shooting game with his last shot, a banked runner with 58.2 seconds left in the second overtime to break the last tie of the game.
Cool hand Justin Holiday and Markkanenn finished it off with all their free throws when the Knicks had to foul.
"I thought we hung in there, especially after that first overtime when Porzingis dunked it," said Hoiberg. "Our guys were a little down in the huddle. But they regrouped quickly, executed the first couple of plays very well and got the first two shots to get a four point lead (in the second overtime with Robin Lopez dunks). Then got a little stagnant and then the biggest thing is we made stops; I thought our defense was the best it was all game in the both overtimes."
Hoiberg then paused a bit, the picture obviously still clear, 3-D like in his mind. Markkanen late in the third quarter after the Knicks led by 11 points taking a Doug McDermott miss, dribbling up the right side, accelerating past McDermott, and then turning into the basket with Kanter waiting. And boom!
Kaak, kaak, kaak, which is how it sounded in Finnish with the usually restrained and phlegmatic Markkanen skin full scream skipping back to the Bulls huddle to his astonished teammates and coaches.
No, this team wasn't backing down.
"I damn near passed out when he dunked that one. That was un-believable," Hoiberg said, stretching out the "un" as a long syllable. "To see the attack and transition, the ability to rebound and push the ball down the floor and rise up and do that; it was such an exciting play. Lauri to come in on the big stage, the world's most famous arena, and hit eight threes and play against arguably as good a power forward as there is in this league in (Kristaps) Porzingis, to play 46 minutes and then hit the big free throws late shows you everything you need to know about Lauri; such a competitor, spectacular play after spectacular play tonight.
"Am I surprised?" Hoiberg repeated the question.
"Yeah," he said. "When he took that full court and just cocked it back, I was literally speechless, the whole bench; I got chills when he did it. It was crazy the way he did that and then to keep his cool and go back out there and stay poised and hit big shots after that. Porzingis had it going and he battled him."
You'd say Markkanen had the edge with 10 rebounds and making Porzingis disappear for long stretches of the game even as Porzingis had 24 points. And Markkanen isn't even supposed to be the best talent on the Bulls, that being Zach LaVine due to begin his Bulls playing career Saturday against the Detroit Pistons.
The Bulls broke out of their little slump and moved to 15-27. The Knicks are 19-22. Leading scorer Nikola Mirotic remained out with a stomach virus, but the team expects him to return Saturday along with LaVine.
Valentine had another pure all around game with four threes and nine rebounds as well as the career best points. Lopez added 20 points. Holiday had 16 points and was the go-to guy again for the late free throws. Nwaba rebounded from a slump with 13 points, playing both overtimes for his defense.
"I thought Nwaba guarding Beasley was the matchup we had to have," explained Hoiberg. "Denzel was having an unbelievable game, but we felt like in order to slow him down we had to have David on the floor. And he made a big layup for us late in the shot clock."
That was late in the first overtime when Nwaba picked up an errant pass when Markkanen was doubled in the corner and drove and scored for a 110-108 lead. Jarrett Jack matched that, Lopez then tipped in a Nwaba miss with 40 seconds left, but Jack answered again. Dunn missed and then came that deflating Porzingis dunk on a flashy out of bounds play that started with 4.8 seconds left.
It wasn't the most artful of overtimes with neither team shooting 40 percent in the first, the fatigue apparent with both coaches staying with their regulars.
But the Bulls defied the mood and the intense Madison Square Garden atmosphere to open the second overtime with Holiday's playmaking to Lopez for back to back dunks, the two former Knicks giving the Bulls a 116-112 lead. It was the Bulls then denying the Knicks before Dunn's 18th shot became a rare one to find the orange ring.
"He does have that kind of innate quality to have the toughness to fight through those times and play his best when it matters most and not a lot of people have that," said Hoiberg. "Kris has shown an ability to continue to play and not be afraid to raise up and take the big shot."
And also speaking of Markkanen, who by the way was playing for the first time ever in Madison Square Garden. So he sat patiently after the game, wearing his college, U. of Arizona stocking cap—who knew they needed them down there—and answering questions. Well, sort of.
Reporters often have contests around Markkanen. How many words will he have to his sentences? Often it's four or five. Then he looks back at you and smiles. He's always pleasant, but rarely says much. His teammates say he's not unlike that with them.
So the big dunk, what Dunn called one of the 10 best in the NBA this season, more reminiscent of Derrick Rose in Phoenix some years back.
"Reading the game," said Markkaken. "I thought I had the lane. I didn't know if he was coming or not, so I just had to go for it."
"It feels great to win, especially that kind of game," Markkanen added when pressed. "Can never be satisfied; missed a lot of shots down the stretch, so I'm not happy about that."
"It was awesome; the fans are great. Awesome feeling to play here."
Fred saying he felt chills about your play?
"Great to hear that from your own coach; I'm happy for that.
"Of course, its nice to play in the Staples center, here," said Markkanen. "I just love to play basketball."
It probably really didn't matter to him. By all accounts, he is just a basketball junkie. There often are TV crews now from Finland coming to the U.S. to interview Markkanen and he tends to be, understandably, a bit more conversational with them. One of the reporters said he was with Markkanen on a commercial shoot, Markkanen becoming a major celebrity in the small country known for a lot of frozen stuff. The reporter said they'd rented a gym for the filming, and then when they finished Markkanen asked if he could use the gym. They had paid for all day and had two hours left. They said he could, and then he was like a child on Christmas morning bouncing around in the gym.
"He's such a wonderful kid, grounded, great teammate; the guys love him," said Hoiberg. "For a guy, one of our main players on the floor as a 20-year-old, no one has any animosity because of how good a kid and teammate he is. Love coaching him."
This looked for a long time like another loss with the Bulls having lost five of six coming in, suddenly not able to finish the close games as well.
The Bulls had a fast start with Markkanen's shooting, 11 first quarter points and a 26-25 lead after the Bulls led 17-10 and 24-17. Without the ill Mirotic, the reserves stumbled again as the Knicks with Beasley scoring easily took a 41-31 lead in the second quarter. Going back to the starters with Valentine easing in for good shots, the Bulls trailed just 52-48 at halftime.
But Nwaba also was studying for later. He doesn't shoot well. So teams have been laying back and cutting off his baseline driving game. He had five points or fewer three of his last five games, and without his scoring and Mirotic's the reserves face a quagmire. Valentine closed the second quarter with a pair of threes and Markkanen dropped in another when it appeared he Knicks might pull away.
Then in that third quarter with the Knicks again inching away, Markkanen delivered his inspirational exclamation point.
"I didn't even know how to react," said Dunn. "I've seen him do a lot of dunks, like in layup lines. But didn't expect him to raise up like that. I looked at everybody to see what was going on. I was in shock mode; first time I've ever seen him react like that."
The reserves recovered for a good stretch to open the fourth quarter, though Hoiberg kept Holiday in and then went also to Valentine. It was the Bulls who looked like they'd pull away, taking a 98-92 lead with 5:45 left. Then 103-98 with 2:57 left. But the Bulls then were scoreless with five misses the last 2:12 before Nwaba's game saver block and rebound with 22 seconds left despite giving up six inches. Beasley with a team high 26 points faced up Nwaba for what looked like the end for the Bulls with the game tied.
"Important he caught it not too close to the post," explained Nwaba. "Just force him one way and stay down. That was the biggest thing because he knows how to draw contact and get the foul; just go straight up and it worked out. He likes to go left. Try to take that away. So he went middle and I was able to get to his left hand."
Yes, just like that.
Both teams took a breath in the first overtime, and it began to look like Dunn didn't want to shoot. With Nwaba also playing, that would be too few shooters. And with Lopez. Uh oh. I might have benched Dunn by then. Good no one ever asks.
"First overtime I tried to lay back a little and get guys more involved," Dunn acknowledged. "My teammates kept telling me, ‘Be aggressive.' So I had to just man up and try to do the right thing. My team, they believe in me. Literally, when I missed the two shots they pulled me to the side and said, ‘Keep shooting, we believe in you.' They said they've seen me make the shots multiple times, so keep doing it."
And so with the score tied at 116 after a Porzingis dunk with 1:46 left in the second overtime, Dunn never hesitated after a Jack miss with about a minute left. The bank wasn't artistic, and maybe not called as it was pretty straight on. But it looked beautiful for the Bulls, who made the closing plays this time.
"It was one of those nights when the ball wasn't falling in for me for some reason," said Dunn, who shot four for 18 with nine points, eight assists and five steals. "No matter what just keep fighting. I've seen Kobe miss a bunch of shots and then he comes up with a big one. I had that in the back of my mind. If he could do it, why not? Just keep trying."
It's apparent the Bulls get at least the trying from this group. Certainly from the rookie from Finland.
Surprised, someone wondered. After all, rookie wall and all that stuff, January dog days?
"Doesn't surprise me at all," Markkanen said. "Feels better to play well. Like I said, I'm just happy we won. It was hard fought; we could have ended it a little bit earlier."
The free throws with 6.8 seconds in the second overtime? After all, the Bulls led by just one.
"It's like every day in practice," said Markkanen. "So the same preparation. I was kind of nervous—ah ha!—I rattled the first one. But it was just normal free throws."
Just letting his game do the talking. Verbose and eloquent.