Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen led the way for the Bulls, but it was the surprising contributions from Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio that helped seal the win over the Timberwolves.
This was supposed to be an L of a season for the Bulls. You know, a LaVine and Lauri lollapalooza. Instead of a season with a surprising number of Ls. But perhaps with Wednesday's Bulls 117-110 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves led by LaVine and Markkanen each scoring at least 20 points for just the sixth time this season, their play will be a leitmotif for the remainder of the season.
The Bulls now are 4-2 when the presumed central figures of the team's revival produce the sweet swish sounds of least 20 points in a game. The Bulls for the season are 17-29.
"I'm a glass half-filled dude," said LaVine, who scored 25 points, 12 straight with at least 20 which is second longest in the East this season to Giannis Antetokounmpo. "We're past halfway in the season, but still a lot of games to be played. We saw it a lot in February into March last year (winning six of nine with both averaging more than 20). Hopefully, we can get back to that. With the guard and big combo, I think it's lethal."
That was the plan for this season and moving forward, a high scoring shooting guard and power forward to be supported by adding veteran role players and the growth of the young, recent high draft picks. It sounded like a reasonable plan. LaVine has done his part with his best season as a professional as he remains in the conversation to play in his first All-Star game.
It's been difficult for Markkanen, who has scored at least 20 points just 10 times this season. That the Bulls are 6-4 in those games suggests his importance.
"I think I'm important," shrugged Markkanen. "I haven't really thought about that. I just play as well as I can every night and just help the team. I think it's other people that say how important."
So how important, Zach?
"They can't help (off Lauri as a shooter) because it's going to be an automatic three right there," said LaVine. "He's been picking it up. He played real aggressive tonight and we love that, getting to the free-throw line, driving it, taking his shots. We need that from him. He's been dealing with a foot injury (ankle sprain) and that's what we have to take into consideration."
The Bulls have been at this starting line before, the guarded optimism of a victory over a team with a losing record (15-29) that doesn't guard particularly well. The Timberwolves got the quietest 40 points from Karl Anthony-Towns, who seemingly could have doubled that if not for foul trouble and the Timberwolves curious habit of not moving him into the post more or remembering he plays for them.
Luke Kornet with 15 points and Cristiano Felicio with 12 points and 10 rebounds, his first double/double in almost two years, did well to offset some of Towns' offense. Felicio also did reasonably well starting the second half for Kornet to make things a bit more difficult physically for Towns.
"I feel like there's not a lot of people who are going to get easy buckets on me," said Felicio. "I tried to go out and play physical with him; that's not something he likes. I used that to my advantage to try to stop him and was able to do that a few times. It's been a while since I've played, but I'm always working and always getting myself ready."
The much-maligned Felicio also had six crucial fourth-quarter points on offensive rebounds (seven overall of the Bulls 12) and a fast break which helped the Bulls hold off Minnesota early in the quarter. Kris Dunn added 14 points while matching a career-high with eight free throws. The Bulls had 37 attempts to 24 for Minnesota. Coby White added 12 points while it was the Timberwolves firing away carelessly from three with 44 attempts, some even seemingly planned. The Bulls also forced 18 turnovers for 25 points and mostly dominated the first half with a 19-point lead midway through the second quarter. Though it would shrink to 59-52 at halftime and almost become another of those how-did-that-happen games when the Timberwolves tied the score midway through the third quarter as they were destined to make some threes.
Inside the Locker Room with Cristiano Felicio
"I feel like everybody played well and we had guys coming off the bench doing well," said Markkanen. "Like Felicio. It's not easy to sit out so many games and come out and play. He did a good job; many guys contributed. Hutch (Chandler Hutchison with nine points) was great. It's nice to be able to get a win down the stretch."
Which the Bulls did, unsurprisingly, with LaVine making the big shot, a long three with 1:26 left for a 111-108 lead and then a drive for a pair of free throws and five-point lead with 25.6 seconds left after an unforced Minnesota turnover and a Shabazz Napier missed three. The Bulls got their last 16 points from the trio of LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn, who all came from Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler trade.
It also helped the Bulls that after Towns easily got inside for a pair of scores to take a 108-106 lead with 2:15 left and the Bulls closing the game with four guards and Markkanen, the Timberwolves shots came from Robert Covington twice, Napier and Andrew Wiggins. Towns next got the ball with about 10 seconds left to close the scoring with a dunk.
"I thought we needed to score," explained Bulls coach Jim Boylen about the closing group. "We were going to stay in our black (trap/show defense) and if we needed to switch we could with that group. Kind of a two-headed decision and I felt it would help us at the other (offensive) end. We just could not go through a drought in the last couple of minutes."
It worked as Markkanen and LaVine combined for 16 fourth-quarter points with four of seven three-pointers. Both also played more than 33 minutes, which also has been rare this season, especially for the sometimes wayward Markkanen. His uncertain season has been the most discussed topic in the media with explanations about the style of play to his style of dress, both somewhat conservative.
"I was involved a lot coming off ball screens," said Markkanen. "Push it if I rebound the ball, which I did more than the previous game. If I get a couple of looks early and I make them, then they have to guard me differently. Then I'm going to drive to the basket and I think I have a lot more options than just if I'm spotting up in the corner or anything like that. I think it opens up the game. Not just for me."
Sounds simple enough, though the additional playing time also helped as Markkanen stayed in almost the entire first quarter as he led the team in scoring and rebounding and the Bulls offset a dozen Towns points with a 35-26 lead. The Timberwolves had nine turnovers leading to 14 Bulls points. The Bulls led 49-30 with 5:41 left in the half as the Bulls also got feisty with Dunn drawing a technical foul for a pushing incident with Napier. The Timberwolves went on to push the Bulls to the brink of more despair. Though this time no big L. Just the Bulls L of a combination.
"Zach powered through, made some big plays at the end," said Boylen. "Lauri was terrific. I thought he set the tone for us in the fourth quarter, his activity and his ability to spread the floor and make shots. They're two important pieces to what we are building. They're two guys who are developing. They have the responsibility to grow and get better, but also to help us win. They're doing the best they can."