It’s not fair to lose a starting job due to injury or even being hit in the face by a teammate, but three games in it looks like Lauri Markkanen doesn’t have to be brought along as slowly as people thought before the season.
Markkanen was supposed to be battling incumbents Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis for valuable minutes, but when the two power forwards went to battling each other it opened the door for the Bulls’ first-round pick.
And he’s responded against some of the best competition in the NBA, setting an NBA record for 3-pointers by a rookie in his first three games in the Bulls’ 119-112 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena.
Markkanen scored 17 of his career-high 19 points in the first half, along with eight rebounds in 32 minutes -- the Bulls are being very careful about too many minutes too soon in a 20-year old’s career.
“It was great to see Lauri get off to that start. Our guys did a good job of finding him,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s gonna be a heck of a player, man. To see him battling the way he did against this type of competition, says a lot about him.”
In trying to deftly avoid a question about it being hard to keep him on the bench when Portis comes back, he finally relented with a chucking “yes.”
“He’s been really good, three games in,” Hoiberg said. “We cut his minutes back by design, but he’s got a chance to be special.”
He’s shown an adept ability to find spots on the floor to get his shot in the flow of the offense, and hit five first-half triples to help the Bulls take a 14-point lead before a stunned crowd.
His play impressed Hall of Famers on the other side in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
James took note of Markkanen last season at Arizona, in part because Markkanen wore James’ shoes.
“ Very confident. Very confident. Watched him a lot at Arizona, Had to stay up very late to watch those Arizona games,” James said. “But very confident kid. Can shoot the heck out of the ball. He's going to continue to get better.”
Wade took note considering they would’ve been teammates had he not been bought out on the eve of training camp, impressed with Markkanen’s shooting.
“Not surprised. You can see if a guy knows how to play basketball when you first see him, right away,” Wade said. “In the preseason, we all said he can play. No matter his age he can play basketball. He's aggressive. He's looking for his shot. He understands they need him to score the basketball.”
Granted, plenty of this came from Kevin Love’s inability to track Markkanen in transition or in the set offense but his last triple of the half came with LeBron James in his face.
But his high release wasn’t bothered by James’ reach, and his minutes and growth shouldn’t be affected when Portis and Mirotic return to action. What did affect Markkanen was the Cavaliers attention to him in the second half.
The looks that were once open closed quickly.
Whether it was James or Tristan Thompson or even Love, he was clearly an object of the Cavaliers’ affection in the locker room at the half.
His one basket was still, though, a sight of potential as he drove down the line to toss up an off-balance shot, quickly regaining his footing to rebound the miss and flush it with two hands in the third quarter.
James had to carry the Cavaliers early, scoring 23 in the first half in his new “role” as point guard, officially playing the position for the first time since the 2005 season. He nearly matched Markkanen’s 3-point output and had the Cavaliers within three at the half before things went according to script in the third quarter and thereafter.
Behind the back passes, including some of the crosscourt variety, had the Cavaliers matching the Bulls’ firepower as he set up Love and Kyle Korver for fourth-quarter triples.
James finished with a game-high 34 points and 13 assists and Love scored 20 with 12 rebounds. Justin Holiday scored 25, including four triples as the Bulls hit 17 of 33 from long range to help them to a huge lead as well as climb back in the game in the second half when the Cavaliers pulled away.
A corner triple with under 30 seconds left didn’t find the mark and could’ve cut the Cavaliers lead to three, ending whatever slim chances the Bulls had in making the Eastern Conference Champs sweat.
But it was the skinny rookie who opened eyes early and should garner plenty of attention as time goes on.
“He's going to continue to get better,” James said. “The best thing about it he's getting an opportunity. So you can make mistakes and learn on the fly. But he's going to play a lot because he's learning. He's a good player.”