Sam Smith reflects on the top ten games of the season so far

"I'm confident we are going to be really good," says Lauri Markkanen

The NBA concluded its midseason party Sunday with a bunch of guys playing with LeBron James beating a bunch of guys playing with Steph Curry 148-145. It was a more compelling All-Star game than in recent years, though I'm still not sure who was playing with whom. Other than it was stars, which is what this weekend is about for the NBA.

It's best and brightest come out to play, and the Bulls were well represented, if not in Sunday's game.

There was rookie Lauri Markkanen in the finals and runner-up in the All-Star Saturday Night Skills Competition. Markkanen continued to impress with a strong performance playing with the winning World team in the Friday Rising Stars game with 15 points on seven of 11 shooting. Kris Dunn played on the opposing USA team and probably came the farthest with an earnest performance a year after not even being considered for an invitation.

And then later Saturday night when the NBA introduced the legends of their dunk contests before the competition, Zach LaVine, a two-time champion, welcomed the applause at center court along with inaugural winner Larry Nance and Dominique Wilkins.

If not as successful quite yet, the Bulls Baby Big Three was as impressive a core of three young players as perhaps anywhere in the NBA.

"I'm confident we are going to be really good," Markkaken said before taking in the dunk contest and a late flight back to Chicago. "I'm excited to get back to Chicago and just actually get to the gym and be on the court with Zach and Kris. We haven't played too many games together. Zach showed what he could do before the break and Kris is playing really well; I think we're going to be good."

While the Bulls have talked generally about additional playing time for spot players like Cameron Payne, Cristiano Felicio, Noah Vonleh and Antonio Blakeney, these last 25 games are an opportunity for the Bulls to finally glance into the future, to see what their core of LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen might look like playing together.

LaVine didn't return from his ACL surgery recuperation until Jan. 13 and has been on a playing time limitation mostly since then. Those minutes should increase now.

LaVine has been increasingly impressive despite the odd rotation. He's averaging 16.9 points and shooting 37 percent on threes in about 25 minutes per game.

Markkanen has been the most consistent this season, surprisingly for a rookie, averaging 15.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in about 30 minutes per game. He set all-time league records for fastest to making 100 threes.

Dunn is averaging 13.5 points and 6.3 assists with a steadily improving three-point shot up to about 32 percent. He's among the league leaders in steals at about two per game.

But the trio has played just four games together with little that can be gleaned from each. Which is why this stretch of 25 games playing together should be significant.

The Bulls won the first two games the three acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade played together, a 107-105 win over the Detroit Pistons. Markkaken had 19 points, Dunn 18 and LaVine 14. But it was LaVine's first game back after not playing for 11 months. He was limited to 19 minutes.

The Bulls defeated Miami 119-111 the next game, a second straight impressive win over a quality team with the three playing together. LaVine had 18 points despite limited playing time. Markkanen had 17 and Dunn six, but with 10 assists. The Bulls lost the other two games the three played together, but with unusual circumstances because of absences.

"I'm excited to get back to Chicago and just actually get to the gym and be on the court with Zach and Kris. We haven't played too many games together. Zach showed what he could do before the break and Kris is playing really well; I think we're going to be good."

- Lauri Markkanen

The next game after Miami was against champion Golden State, and the Bulls started strong. They fell back after halftime, but were making a charge down the stretch when Dunn got a steal and dunk with three minutes left to get within five points. But Dunn fell awkwardly on his face and had to leave the game. The result was a concussion and he missed the next 11 games.

Dunn returned to play Toronto in the game before the All-Star break, but he was limited to 20 minutes because of his injury. Markkanen had returned the previous week after missing three games with a personal leave, so the three didn't have a chance to work together. The Bulls lost badly to Toronto.

But now the three, effectively, have their first run together without being hindered by minutes limitations, injuries and absences.

They're looking for big things.

"We're young, athletic," Dunn pointed out. "Zach, he can fly; he was a two-time slam dunk contest winner. Lauri, he can fly. I'm athletic and young. We like to run, get out in transition, play real fast paced. We've got other guys who also can run and shoot the ball."

Though the play of those three is crucial to determining the makeup of this Bulls team. It appears as if the Bulls may have a special threesome.

Here's a look at their 10 best games from the pre-All Star period. There should be plenty more to come now that they'll begin to play together.

1. Feb. 9. Bulls defeat Timberwolves 114-113

It was the game of the season, the Bulls only nationally televised game and the return of Jimmy Butler. It was one of those circled-all-season games with the majority of the attention focused on Butler. It became clear, though only afterward, that LaVine resented being overlooked in his first game against his former team. And he did something about it, particularly outplaying Butler down the stretch and carrying his team to the victory. LaVine had 35 points, including 10 of 11 from the free throw line, the Bulls last 11 points and three crucial late free throws after drawing a foul against Butler. It was a seminal big game performance in just his 12th game back. It was on the biggest stage the Bulls would have this season and it was taking over and carrying the team down the stretch to victory. Big time impressive stuff.

2.  Jan. 10. Bulls defeat Knicks in double overtime 122-119 in New York

This had to be Dunn's favorite game of the season even though he had nine points and four of 18 shooting. Though he did make the winner in double overtime with his last shot of the game. But it was Markkanen with the big time game, 33 points and 10 rebounds, eight of 15 threes. Dunn in interviews during All-Star weekend mentioned multiple times how special it was to see a rookie make eight threes in Madison Square Garden.  Markkanen also had a big time, highlight poster dunk over seven footer Ens Kanter and outplayed the more heavily promoted Kristaps Porzingis, especially down the stretch. And then Markkanen made the closing, clutch free throws to close out the second overtime and the win. Amazing stuff for a rookie, as Dunn repeated.

3. Dec. 8. Bulls defeat Hornets 119-111 in overtime

The win in Charlotte ended the 10-game losing streak in an impressive way after the Bulls blew a four-point lead in the last 35 seconds of regulation. Markkanen then made the back breaking three in overtime to give the Bulls enough margin with two minutes remaining. He finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds while Dunn had 20 points 12 assists, three steals and just one turnover against All-Star Kemba Walker.

4. Dec. 9. Bulls defeat Knicks 104-102

It was Dunn taking the ball down the stretch and making the two pressure free throws with 2.9 seconds left for the win. With the Knicks in Chicago waiting, the Bulls had weather and airplane issues the night before in Charlotte and arrived back in Chicago just five hours before game time. Knicks star Porzingis was shut out the last 6:58 guarded by Markkanen and missed the last shot. Dunn had a near triple double with nine assists and seven rebounds and Markkanen had 15 points and eight rebounds.

5. Feb. 12. Bulls beat Magic 105-101

The Bulls were about to blow an 18-point fourth quarter lead and lose when LaVine overplayed a Magic inbounds pass with 15 seconds left, stole he ball and drove in for a powerful slam dunk. It was impressive, though not quite to the level of LaVine's dunk contest-like poster dunk Feb. 5 over JaKarr Sampson in Sacramento. LaVine then made the clinching free throws after a Magic miss. He had 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists and Markkanen had 21 points and eight rebounds.

6. Oct. 26. Bulls defeat Hawks 91-86

It wasn't clear when this Bulls team with LaVine and Dunn out injured and Quincy Pondexter and Kay Felder in the rotation would get a win. But Markkanen made the game winner for the Bulls, a three with 48 seconds left to rally the Bulls down the stretch for their first win of the season, the rookie stepping up to take the responsibility.

7. Dec. 18. Bulls beat 76ers 117-115

Both former Bull Nikola Mirotic and Dunn had 22 points, but it was Dunn emerging in that closer role. Trailing by eight with under four minutes left, Dunn made a three to tie the game and then stepped into a jumper for the lead with a minute left to win a sixth straight game after the Bulls had come off 10 consecutive losses.

8. Jan. 5. Bulls defeat Mavericks 127-124

It was a wild finish with the Bulls almost losing a 10-point lead in the last minute and making all 13 free throws in the last 68 seconds for a record 47-point fourth quarter. Dunn had 32 points, nine assists and four steals and Markkanen had 16 points and nine rebounds and the difference maker with a follow slam dunk with 1:08 left that gave the Bulls the large enough lead to just about hang on.

9. Jan. 13. Bulls defeat Pistons 107-105

It was LaVine's return game and he had 14 points in 19 minutes. He didn't play in the fourth quarter as Markkanen made the 17 footer with a minute left to put the Bulls ahead for good and then Dunn had the game saving block at the buzzer. Markkanen had 19 points and four three pointers and Dunn had 18 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.

10. Dec. 29. Bulls beat Pacers 119-107

It was the revenge game after the Bulls blew that 16-point lead down the stretch and lost in Indianapolis earlier in this month with the Pacers rubbing it in. Dunn was a last minute scratch with a knee issue. Former Bull Mirotic had eight threes and then it was Markkanen with the strong close for 32 points and seven rebounds as the Bulls made 18 threes, five by Markkanen who had six of the Bulls last 10 points.

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