Nikola Mirotic sits late in loss to Blazers, but the Bulls were really missing Zach LaVine


Nikola Mirotic sits late in loss to Blazers, but the Bulls were really missing Zach LaVine

Kris Dunn muttered expletives after his jumper came up short that could have tied the game at 122 and forced the Bulls and Portland Trailblazers into another delicate dance into double overtime.

A learning experience to be sure as Dunn has played in plenty of close games late and come out on the positive side more times than not.

“I was trying to look for the pocket pass for (Robin Lopez) and then the kickout,” he said. “I was deep in the paint and I just took the shot.”

On the bench sat a man who could have helped Dunn out with spacing on a cramped floor, where Dunn’s late pass on a previous possession hit Lopez at the worst possible place—near his feet.

But Nikola Mirotic didn’t play the final 12:34 of the game, being subbed out with Bobby Portis for Lopez and Lauri Markkanen as Fred Hoiberg had to decide what was most important with Jusef Nurkic eating up space like Pac-Man in the paint.

“I wish I was there playing,” said Mirotic, who revealed he had an issue with a strain in his ribs in the second quarter. He didn’t take the bait of criticizing Hoiberg for not playing him late, especially when the Bulls could’ve used the firepower.

“I felt good in the third quarter, making some shots, and Fred just played with Lauri and Robin, which is great.”

Mirotic’s 18 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes looked good on the box score, but even he wasn’t the best option to aid Dunn on a night where he had eight turnovers—his highest output of the season, turning the clock on his development back for one night.

Zach LaVine will be the man to best clear room late, so defenses won’t be able to load up on the slithering point guard as he navigates the field for easy shots. LaVine finished his third day of training camp-like practices, this one with the Windy City Bulls as he’s halfway to hitting the mark the Bulls set for him before the next step surrounding his potential return.

“Everything looked great. He’s had two lengthy practices the last couple days with Windy City and has had no complications,” Hoiberg said. “He’s sore, as expected. After practice [Monday] he went straight to the ice tub to kind of work on the soreness. But yeah, overall he’s handled it great. He’ll have another good opportunity [Tuesday].”

Hoiberg isn’t getting ahead of himself, as he made those comments before Monday’s game, but

“He’s another guy that can give you that. We were playing through Denzel (Valentine), then Kris-Lauri and RoLo had a little bit of success,” Hoiberg said. “He gives you a really good shot maker, probably the best shot maker on the team.”

It’s what the Bulls missed Monday as C.J. McCollum overcame missing his first eight shots and a borderline miserable night to take over late, getting into the crevices of the Bulls defense with his sneaky athleticism and ability to play the angles to his advantage.

Thirteen of McCollum’s 32 points came in the fourth quarter and overtime, and it took 30 shots to get there as the Blazers were without headliner Damian Lillard due to a hamstring injury.

He had help from Al-Farouq Aminu and Chicagoan Evan Turner, as Aminu kept slipping away from the weak side to drain five triples and Turner’s unorthodox game kept the Blazers afloat until McCollum shook free of the Bulls defense late, scoring 22 on 10 of 14 shots.

On a good team, Lauri Markkanen fills the role of secondary scorer late, as defenses won’t be able to load up on a more mature Dunn and a fully healthy LaVine from getting to their spots.

Dunn has been a revelation and shows the gumption to take big shots late but even he would probably say in a moment of honesty his best fit is in a role complementing LaVine late as opposed to being looked at as a closer on a nightly basis—at least to this point.

Markkanen calmly drilled a 3-pointer late against the Wizards Sunday afternoon and came up a hair short on a triple with 17 seconds left in the fourth that could’ve broken the 112-all score, but this experience is invaluable for his long-term development.

“Being in there at the end of crunch time. That shot he took, that was right there. Just another centimeter, that thing’s in the basket,” Hoiberg said. “He’s not afraid. He hit a couple big shots for us in overtime, the kid is going to be an unbelievable player.”

As a whole, we’ve been distracted, our thoughts led astray by the Astro bombs Mirotic has fired away at a moments’ notice that resulted in a hailstorm of victories. The clouded vision has made the Bulls more than watchable; they’ve been downright fun to observe as Hoiberg’s system creates almost a controlled chaos of sorts—heck, anything where Portis and Mirotic make sweet basketball music in tandem has to be some form of insanity given the circumstances.

Averaging 109 points in the 13 games before Monday’s overtime thriller is not a mirage, and some have quietly wondered if LaVine’s return would throw off the Bulls’ newfound chemistry and effectiveness, having to work in a perimeter player who’ll command a lot of attention and need a chance to work the rust off a debilitating ACL injury.

But the last two games—losses that put the fun and exciting Bulls back to 2.5 games away from having the worst record in the league—have also shined a light on the roster’s limitations as it stands.

Hoiberg’s system can create shots for just about anybody—see Lopez taking 16 shots or Mirotic having the ultimate green light as he boosts his trade value in the meantime—but what the Bulls need long-term is someone to create shots outside of the offense, when the game slows down and movement becomes less of a priority.

See John Wall and Bradley Beal, as no one with a brain can tell you the Washington Wizards ran smoother offensive sets with Scott Brooks on the sidelines, who for his strengths as a coach, X’s and O’s aren’t high on that list.

See McCollum, who caught a rhythm late.

See Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, the player who gave the Milwaukee Bucks a 52-point performance Monday night, and he’ll be in the United Center Wednesday for an encore.

Having Mirotic on the floor would’ve been nice for the short-term, to send the United Center faithful home with more than just a participation trophy of sorts, but any criticism headed Hoiberg’s way is short-sighted.

LaVine is the guy who was missed Monday.

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.