LaVine and DeRozan go off as Bulls beat Jazz 126-118

Sure, the Bulls took care of Giannis and the Bucks, KD and the Nets, and earlier Tatum and the Celtics and Jimmy and the Heat. But this was Lauri, Lauri and his Jazz, and that the Bulls Saturday got this one, 126-118 for their third consecutive win and eighth in their last 11 maybe does mean something special is brewing.

So, OK, that was a bit of sarcasm. 

Though not much anymore for the former Bull, whose “finish” homonym here meant to most his career and not his country. But against the Bulls Saturday he did his best to make them his coffee break, dunking on them so often it seem he’d need a Baker’s dozen before he was done. Markkanen had eight dunks and 28 points including a poster that Nikola Vučević’s family is buying up to keep out of circulation.

In the end, however, two was greater than one as Zach LaVine with 36 points to follow his 41 in Philadelphia Friday night and DeMar DeRozan with 35—and combining for 27 fourth quarter points—overcame a seven-point fourth quarter deficit and shot out to the win.

“We’re playing well,” agreed LaVine, whose 35 points and 6-plus threes in back to back games was a first in franchise history. “We’re making big plays. I’m not saying we’re playing perfect, but we’re competing. We’re coming into each game with a certain type of energy and confidence. We need to keep this game by game; enjoy the win and get ready to go play Boston (Monday).”

Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan combined for 71 points in the win over Utah on Saturday night.

Which is a big one not only as the last time this regular season the Bulls will play the Celtics, but also a bit of a test with the Bulls finally closing in on .500 at 19-21. Is this a balloon that could burst or one ready to fly.

“We had a lot of trauma early on where you’ve seen the inconsistency,” DeRozan acknowledged. “You’ve got to figure out the best way and I think we’re catching that rhythm and understanding what we need to do. We knew it was going to come at some point, understanding our spots and understanding moments in the game when it's time to be aggressive. It’s us staying with it. We’ve had some tough weeks, some tough games where we felt nothing could go our way, but we’re sticking with it.”

It’s looked like it recently, though in large part because of LaVine.

Not necessarily just the scoring, but that it’s becoming as Zach goes so goes the Bulls.

Not so much whether they can compete regularly; the Bulls showed last season even with a mass of injuries they could with DeRozan’s extraordinary scoring ability. But if they are to make a move to some level of elite play even without the injured Lonzo Ball, it will be because of LaVine.

Because no one on the team shoots like he does, and Bulls coach Billy Donovan appeared to acknowledge the difference following Saturday’s win that came with LaVine’s three consecutive three-point makes to turn the fourth quarter deficit into a win.

“He’s playing, especially these last two games, really efficiently,” admired Donovan. “You see him and it’s one or two dribbles and a pullup three. One or two dribbles, straight downhill. He’s just reading the game really well. I was very encouraged he took 13 threes against Philly. As long as he’s doing that you always feel good with his shooting percentage; to me 10 to 15 (threes) every night (from LaVine), I would love that.

“The last two games,” Donovan pointed out, “he’s got up 25 three-point shots. He’s such a great shooter that it (also) opens up a lot of things.”

This time just enough for the win as Vučević had 15 points and 16 rebounds with just eight shot attempts and Andre Drummond added 11 points off the bench. Though Patrick Williams and Coby White didn’t produce much through three quarters, both made crucial shots in a run of threes early in the fourth quarter to set up Zach’s dessert.

More significantly, the Bulls made 13 threes, six by LaVine. DeRozan then added a couple of baskets and lured the baby Jazz into several fouls to assure it never got close enough for Markkanen to steal it as he and the Jazz bullied the Bulls for 68 interior points. Yes, lots of things we never though we’d say about Lauri.

DeMar DeRozan finished with 35 points and seven assists in the win over Utah.

And which after last season I didn’t think I’d say about DeRozan and his classic game, drop step, pump, fake, fake, shoulder, head, basket. Sweet, very sweet.

But it’s no longer the NBA as much as many of us wince about the evolution.

It’s a Game of Threes, and not that HBO series.

If you seek the throne in the NBA, it’s become about making those threes, and among the Bulls that’s LaVine.

Which perhaps is a major reason the Bulls displayed so much inconsistency early in the season. Because in returning from offseason surgery with playing time limitations and even some question about playing in consecutive games, LaVine wasn’t quite who he’s been.

“First couple of back to backs I played I didn’t feel great,” LaVine admitted. “I feel great (now); legs feel healthy. That’s what happens when you come off surgery. Everybody expects you to come back and be yourself or better. But without a lot of training and (with) rehab (in the offseason), you’re going to have go through those ups and downs. I take it on the chin. I knew I was going to get back to what I was supposed to do.”

And so LaVine, no fault or intention of his, took the Bulls on the roller coaster with him.

But the Bulls don’t win either of these last two games without the assault of LaVine threes, 17 made. I’m not giving in to analytics, though I will concede three is more than two.

Very good for the Bulls because one of the biggest areas of concern for the Bulls in those troublesome losses to the so called bad teams were the way those teams mostly populated with youngsters fired away with threes. The Bulls without LaVine couldn’t match that. Sometimes in quantity they could come close riding DeRozan’s shot making.

But that’s also set up by dribbling, which the Bulls have avoided recently with LaVine popping into place and firing those threes with the efficiency Donovan applauded.

“He’s playing the game I’d say very easy,” Donovan agreed. “He’s reading the game really well.”

So is Markkanen, who we all should be pleased for, in part, for what he went through with the Bulls. It’s a common story in sports, as well as outside, that everyone should be familiar with.

“I’m extremely happy for Lauri, type of player he’s become,” said LaVine. “How aggressive he is out there. I talked to him before the game. He was going to come in and make a statement. I told him in the first half to calm down a little bit, but that didn’t help any. He’s 100 percent an All Star in my book; he’s got my vote. He was going to play well; glad we came out with the W.”

Which was the perfect night for the Bulls. 

You don’t root against Lauri Markkanen even if it would be nice to see him still in a Bulls jersey. He’s almost sure to be in an All-Star jersey next month, and not only because the game is in Utah.

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen both led their teams, scoring 36 points and 28 points respectively.

Especially the way he’s been crashing down dunks on opponent’s heads, including back to back for the Jazz’s first two baskets to start the game and one in the third quarter that was worthy of a Chocolate Thunder babies cryin’, glass flyin’, rum roasting, bun toasting, wham bam jam tribute. Poor Vooch. OK, his guys got the W, though Lauri’s guys got one, too, the Wow!

Success in life often is about many things, one of the biggest of which is opportunity. Which is why in college sports that much moaned about portal is so important. We’ll never know how many Tom Bradys there were out there because Alabama recruited the seven best quarterbacks and sat six so their opponents couldn’t get them.

How many times at work did you wonder or ask about if only you got the chance for that account, that case, that story?

Opportunity can make or break you. You know, put me in coach, ready to play today. Beat up glove, a homemade bat and brand new pair of shoes, time to give this game a ride. Say Hey Willie, tell Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio. Don’t say it ain't so, you know the time is now.

Thank you John Fogarty; love that chorus. Finally got a chance to use it.

The conventional wisdom with players like Markkanen, drafted after a year in college, is it takes time to mature and develop, and sometimes two or three teams. It’s often true. I don’t think that was the situation with Markkanen here. Fred Hoiberg was the ideal coach for Lauri. Fred—if not a fan favorite though tasked to lose so what did everyone want?—favored the modern NBA, fast, lots of threes, space the court and run and shoot. Lauri flourished. Remember, the debate was if we did the draft again does he go first? Do you take Tatum, Mitchell or Markkanen? It was a real question; really.

Then Jim Boylen replaced Hoiberg, and Boylen liked football. And basketball players who liked football. And when Lauri didn’t block (out) or tackle or punch the time clock and wore a white collar instead of blue, Boylen put him out in the cold. 

Well, standing outside. Maybe shoot if the ball comes to you; but only maybe. And don’t miss the three you’ll get. Maybe Markkanen could have fought through it and endured like LaVine did, Zach no favorite of Boylen’s, either, as we remember Zach often being singled out even as most of the players with him were still in the process of getting their Chinese basketball work visas.

Lauri couldn’t take it, anymore, and really at that point there was little the Bulls could do to change things with a new organization and new players moving in. He was headed to scout team University of Alabama. 

We saw glimpses of this Lauri then; now he’s stronger and more confident, and good for him. He had plenty of tough times. I know I’ll be cheering for him at All-Star; just hope he doesn’t take part in the dancing the players other than Derrick Rose do in the introductions.

But if you’re around the Bulls the days you can kick up your feet a little because this is starting to look like a party. Dance with these stars.

Returning from Philadelphia early Saturday morning undoubtedly having spent considering time in the rest room gettin rid of those cheesesteaks, the Bulls, nevertheless, jumped on top to start the game 8-0.

Then Lauri dunked, twice, and shortly thereafter; and even as LaVine started where he left off with 11 points in the first quarter, the Bulls knew they were in a game, leading 28-24 after the first quarter and 53-49 at halftime.

DeRozan got it going with a dozen points in the third quarter. But the Bulls began to fall back in a matchup hell that often befalls them with the smaller lineups. Alex Caruso and Javonte Green remained out, so Derrick Jones Jr. was back in, but back at center. And the Jazz took advantage. With Jones at center, Vučević was forced to hustling Jarred Vanderbilt, who was too quick for the Bulls big men.

The Jazz with Markkanen making all four of his attempts harmonized and improvised their way to 40 points in the third quarter and an 89-84 lead going into the fourth. Markkanen was dunking and yelling in Vučević’s face. What the heck was going on?

The Jazz kept getting to the basket for scores. But after missing his first seven attempts following his quality game in Philadelphia, Williams made a pair of threes sandwich with a White three filling. That got the Bulls back even, and then LaVine and DeRozan took it from there, LaVine with three right-between-the-eyes threes, and then DeRozan finishing it off.

Coby White hit some big buckets in the 4th quarter against the Jazz.

“We’re finding a rhythm, sharing the ball, understanding our spots,” said DeRozan. ‘Trying to keep that up.”

A lot of this seems to go back to that horrific loss in Minneapolis when the Bulls gave up 150 points and fingers were pointed at LaVine Players privately have wondered a bit what that was about since LaVine’s name never was mentioned. But 8-3 later, it seems to be all about what’s ahead.

"I don't know,” LaVine said when asked if that was the season turning point. “We have conversations all the time. I just think sometimes you need a little bit of an ass kicking to get you back in the right place. My dad always told me that.

“Your game takes time,” LaVine said. “It takes time for your legs to get conditioned. You guys know I don’t lack confidence. I know the work that I put in each and every day. It’s just a matter of time. I feel great. My legs felt healthy. I felt springy in the beginning of the game. It’s good to feel like me again.”

What a feeling, being’s believin’. Take your passion, Zach, and make it happen. Maybe it’s finally happen’ for the Bulls in this flash.

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