Bulls

Impressed royalty: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade endorse 'very confident' Lauri Markkanen

Impressed royalty: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade endorse 'very confident' Lauri Markkanen

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.”

Unbelievable performance, unexplainable failures leads to Bulls' collapse in New Orleans

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USA TODAY

Unbelievable performance, unexplainable failures leads to Bulls' collapse in New Orleans

Weird things tend to happen in New Orleans. Things filed under “unbelievable” or “unexplainable.”

The Bulls’ double-overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans doesn’t exactly fall under either, but the circumstances leading to it certainly do.

Justin Holiday, the reliable 84 percent free throw shooter missing the last of three freebies that would have ended the game in regulation after being fouled with 0.3 seconds left?

Unexplainable.

“Could’ve won the game with a free throw,” Holiday said, dismissing the notion of nerves. “Thought it was cash, it just didn’t go in. Wasn’t meant to happen, I guess. I was hyped. You get that opportunity, I don’t miss free throws. When you get an opportunity like that, that’s what was on my mind.”

Holiday raced to the 3-point line after the Bulls fell behind 114-112 with three seconds left, drawing a whistle on Darius Miller as the buzzer sounded—giving them a chance to win a game they had no business losing in the first place.

“He made the hard ones, which the first one is the hardest,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He made a great play to be fouled in the first place to even get himself to the line.”

It seemed so unlikely the Bulls would find themselves in their wildest game of the year after seemingly driving the Pelicans to insanity and frustration, taking a 17-point lead with 5 minutes left.

Zach LaVine looked comfortable in his fourth quarter minutes, while Denzel Valentine and Nikola Mirotic hit big shots to extend the Bulls lead—ignoring the irritated atmosphere at the Smoothie King Center as the Pelicans fans felt their team had gotten an unfair whistle.

Then the Pelicans—and their maddeningly talented star DeMarcus Cousins—got mad and took all his frustration out on the Bulls in a historic performance. He needed every bit of the 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists to put the Bulls away, as he bullied the game inside and finessed things from the outside (five 3-pointers) as his teammates finally caught up to his intensity in those frenetic five minutes.

His numbers put him in the company of Wilt Chamberlain—not surprising considering he did everything down the stretch including bringing the ball upcourt as if he were the world’s biggest point guard.

Unbelievable.

“It’s cool to be in company with a guy like Wilt (Chamberlain). He’s a guy that’s put up videogame numbers his entire career,” Cousins said. “Just to have a little game like his, that’s pretty cool.”

His alley-oop to Anthony Davis with 1:39 left in regulation gave him a triple-double and cut the Bulls lead to 110-107, and the Bulls seemed to be in full panic mode. Davis fouled out in the first overtime but not after inflicting 34 points, nine rebounds and five assists of damage in 43 minutes.

“The inability to get a rebound late cost us,” Hoiberg said. “Their pressure, getting into us, really lost all of our pace that we did a good job of for the most part all game. It really slowed us down. That’s what got their run started.”

Jerian Grant, who had performed solidly in Kris Dunn’s absence, then became a target for the Pelicans defense as they harassed Grant, taking the Bulls’ offense out of its rhythm.

Grant had six turnovers in 47 minutes and was visibly bothered by the pressure employed by the Pelicans’ defense, nearly negating his 22-point, 13-assist, five-rebound performance.

“I thought we had really good flow,” Hoiberg said. “I thought Jerian had a really good game. But the pressure really did bother us. Gotta do the things that got you the lead we had. A lot of pace, a lot of movement. A lot of good things.”

The good things certainly included Lauri Markkanen holding his own against Davis and making big defensive plays in the fourth quarter and overtime when the Pelicans foolishly tried to switch Markkanen onto their guards.

But Markkanen kept his composure, moved his feet and was never exploited. Although he shot just 5-for-12 and missed all four of his 3-point attempts, Markkanen took steps forward defensively as he finished with 14 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.

Robin Lopez went at Cousins on the other end, as both were exhausted at the end of the marathon. Lopez scored 22 points in 39 minutes, his only regret likely getting stripped by Cousins at midcourt during the Pelicans’ comeback, leading to free throws.

“We just decided to play defense,” Davis said. “It was tied up going into the fourth quarter. They went on a crazy run. There was like eight minutes left, we just said we going to play defense. Play defense one possession at a time and we are going to be able to come back here.”

Jrue Holiday, Justin’s younger brother, was the main irritant late, along with former Bull E’Twaun Moore, giving just enough support for Cousins and Davis. The Pelicans’ Holiday scored just 12 points with six assists, but had big baskets in the first overtime after Davis fouled out.

“They turned it up, physically,” Justin Holiday said. “My brother started guarding full court. They all starting pressuring us a little more. Sometimes, it’s tough. When they turn the pressure up like that and we have the lead, we don’t necessarily want to be in a rush to score. Then they’re scoring on the other end. We gotta get stops.”

It was hard to ignore how the pressure affected the Bulls. The composure and poise they’ve played with over the last several weeks gave them a level of confidence in hostile environments, but missing Dunn meant they were without a critical part of their offense.

“I don’t wanna say trouble but it bothered us for sure,” Holiday said. “We kinda got sped up. Forget about the offensive end but if we get stops and rebound, we win the game. Again, they have all-stars and things like that, supposed to do their job.”

Even then, though, everyone walking away from the Smoothie King Center knew they witnessed a historic, unbelievable performance as well as an unexplainable collapse.

DeMarcus Cousins made some serious history in the Pelicans' win over the Bulls

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USA TODAY

DeMarcus Cousins made some serious history in the Pelicans' win over the Bulls

DeMarcus Cousins made serious history on Monday night in New Orleans. And no, it wasn't that he played 52 minutes and didn't commit a technical foul.

No, Boogie put together one of the most impressive statlines in NBA history in the Pelicans' double-overtime win over the Bulls. Cousins finished with 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists in win. He became the first player with a 40-20-10 line since Wilt Chamberlain did so in 1968 playing for the 76ers. Chamberlain accomplished the feat four times, and Oscar Robertson did it once in 1965 with a 42-21-10 night for the Cincinnati Royals. 

In 1968 Chamberlain had himself a mammoth night, playing all 48 minutes and going for 53 points, 32 rebounds and 14 assists. In fact, in Chamberlain's four instances of accomplish the feat he averaged 44 points, 27 rebounds and 12.2 assists.

Back to Cousins, he did his damage all over. His wild night included 13-for-29 shooting, five 3-pointers, and he went 13-for-14 from the free throw line. He added four steals and a block and was a +13 in what turned out to be a four-point game.

Cousins played the final 18:36 (minus seven seconds late in the fourth on an offense-for-defense sub), entering the game with 8:36 to play in the fourth quarter and never coming out again. He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter as the Pelicans rallied back down 17 points to force the extra periods.

In the first overtime Cousins had four points and three rebounds, but it was assumed Cousins was going to be the focal point the rest of the night when teammate Anthony Davis fouled out with 2:05 to play.

In the second overtime Cousins gave his last burst, scoring the first five points of the second additional period to give New Orleans a lead. He wound up missing his next and final four shots, but his free throws with 8 seconds left iced the game and gave the Pelicans a four-point lead.

It's no wonder Cousins will start in next month's All-Star Game alongside Davis, who had 34 points, nine rebounds and five assists himself before fouling out in 43 minutes.

Combined the two All-Stars had 78 points, 31 rebounds and 15 assists.