Kris Dunn stated he wanted to be more of a vocal leader, not just the type to lead by example.
Responding to his coach’s call for leadership, Dunn played a critical part in the Bulls washing the embarrassing taste from their mouths in a 119-110 win over the scrappy Memphis Grizzlies at the United Center, as the three cornerstones all showed why they’re well-equipped to be building blocks for the future.
Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen scored 20 or more for the first time this season, a sense of validation of sorts considering the crowd that wanted the Bulls to play for nothing but ping-pong balls.
There’s still plenty to be settled in the next 18 games, and Dunn wanted to be a catalyst for change—taking small steps in his own way that he hopes will lead to giant leaps in due time.
“I told you guys starting the rest of the season that’s what I’m gonna try to bring,” Dunn said. “Not just do it with actions but be vocal. On the defensive end they feel I can be one of the best defenders on the team. I gotta be the linebacker. I see things I gotta communicate.”
The game wasn’t perfect by any stretch as the Bulls nearly squandered a comfortable lead after jumping on the lottery-bound Grizzlies by 21, only to have Dillon Brooks score 20 of his 29 in the fourth to cut the lead to one with 2:13 remaining.
Dunn had six turnovers to go with his nine assists, while LaVine had a few missteps on drives to the lane after previously finding easy room, scoring most of his 21 from the paint.
And when the offense wasn’t crisp, Dunn spoke up for the first time.
“I’m trying to do my job,” Dunn said. “We’re all men in here. If I gotta be the bad guy, I have no problem doing it. They know I have no bad intentions. I don’t think they take it as me trying to yell and get everybody in the right position as criticism. I think they like it.”
When things got tight, Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen all took turns stepping forward, hitting shots or being active enough as a decoy to free up teammates for shots to seal the win.
Dunn kept getting in the lane, while LaVine hit a deep triple with four minutes left to give the Bulls some breathing room during the Dillon onslaught. When Dunn had trouble against the Grizzlies pressure, LaVine initiated the offense on a few possessions.
“Me and Coach talked about that,” LaVine said. “Some days Kris is gonna have it going, I'm gonna have it going or Lauri and we'll have to be okay with it sometimes. The ball doesn't have to stick in one primary dude's hands unless it's his night or he has it going or somebody's demanding.”
Markkanen wasn’t as involved in the primary offense but that perhaps proved to be a good thing for the future, as he repeatedly got out in the open floor or against smaller players for six dunks, the most he’s had in a game this season.
While he took six 3-point attempts, the fact the Bulls were looking for him in a place aside from 25-feet out shows another element to the offense and their own maturity.
“I thought those three were really good, especially Lauri,” Hoiberg said. “They were showing on him and I thought out guys did a good job of finding him on some pick-and-pops, and Zach set a great screen for him to dunk in the lane.”
Justin Holiday returned to the starting lineup for the second time since the All-Star break and showed how much he missed the action, hitting all five of his shots—four from 3-point range—to score 14 points in 17 minutes.
Holiday was also a key figure as a screener in helping Markkanen get open earlier in the season, an aspect LaVine will have to master as he picks up the nuances of Hoiberg’s read-and-react offense moving forward.
As of now, he’s best creating offense with the ball in his hands and while he was eight of 14 from the field, he added five assists and noted the Bulls have the makings for a dangerous late-executing team.
“Each (team) have two dudes they go to,” LaVine said. “A primary guy and secondary dude they can go to at any time. But it's big. I think we have three dudes who can be on at any time during the game.”
There was plenty of space in the set offense as the Bulls shot 53 percent and had 25 assists on 41 field goals, but even more space when they created turnovers to get out in the open floor. LaVine had one steal while Dunn had three, keying fast breaks.
“Kris is just a ballhawk. He just does that off instincts, I use my athleticism,” LaVine said. “He played free safety. I swear he did. A lot of his instincts come from football. I'm gonna call him (former Baltimore Ravens safety) Ed Reed.”
Dunn and LaVine haven’t played together much this season, despite being teammates last year in Minnesota. LaVine’s injury and Dunn being buried on the bench prevented them from developing on-floor chemistry, and this is their first true chance to do it—albeit late in the season.
Dunn termed his chemistry with LaVine as “fair.”
“We got good chemistry off the floor, we got good personalities,” Dunn said. “On the court it takes time. It definitely takes time. We both like to create plays for others and for ourselves. It’s not just on us, but the coaching staff and teammates. We have to figure it out together. Eventually we’ll get it down.”
LaVine is looking at the bigger picture, when the games in March matter as opposed to playing out the string.
“It's big, especially going forward because we're gonna be in situations like this, it's not gonna be where we're out of the playoffs,” he said. “We'll be in the playoff hunt. We'll be contenders so we need to get that experience for those times.”