Bulls

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Lauri Markkanen had gone nearly 47 minutes without making a jumper, but he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to seal the Bulls’ first win.

He put the six straight misses from 3-point range behind him, slipped out to 25 feet and nailed a triple with 48.5 seconds left to put the finishing touches on the Bulls’ first win, a 91-86 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center.

“I guess you could say it worked out perfectly,” he deadpanned. “We knew how they were going to guard the pick and rolls. I slipped in there and was wide open.”

It wasn’t his prettiest performance but one of his most telling through four games, achieving yet another double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes.

“Lauri was reading the way the defender was guarding him, so he slipped outside,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It was a great read. Not only did he have the shot but he had driving lanes.”

His jumper abandoned him, so Markkanen left it where it was to start the second half, going to the basket with a layup from a Euro-step and then a 3-point play following a dunk.

He seemed to enter the second half with a more aggressive mindset, not just with the drive but also going to the glass, using his length to get inside position. The vast difference in the Bulls’ offense when Markkanen is making shots, as he was in Cleveland, compared to early Thursday, when he wasn’t, shows the dependency the Bulls have on him four games in.

“When you can play through a 20-year-old kid like that, it’s pretty impressive to have a game like that when his shot wasn’t falling,” Hoiberg said.

But the fact he was willing to take the shot along with Hoiberg drawing up a play in the last seconds for his young player shows a level of progress that won’t show up in the win-loss column but will aid in Markkanen’s in-season growth.

“Hopefully,” Markkanen said about being a go-to option. “That’s why I’m working on my game. Hopefully I can be that one day.”

Apparently he has the backing of his teammates very early in his tenure.

“That’s big time. We weren’t surprised by that,” Robin Lopez said. “He knows what he can do out there. We all believe in him. He has the utmost confidence in himself, which is awesome. I’ve seen those shots go in in practice. We know it’s gonna go in more often than not.”

Ugly win: Of the games the Bulls will win this year, many of them will be of the pretty variety where 3-pointers will be flying for 48 minutes. This will be one of the few where the Bulls are grinding out a win, outrebounding the Hawks 62-40—even though the Bulls only got up five more shots.

Markkanen, Justin Holiday and David Nwaba grabbed at least 10 rebounds, which was necessary considering the Bulls shot just seven of 32 from 3-point range and just 36 percent overall.

“What did we make, like 22 percent? It shows how much we fight,” Markkanen said. “We rebounded the ball, we found other ways to score the ball.”

To illustrate their offensive struggles, Lopez was essentially the only offensive option early with 10 shots (making five) in the first quarter. He can’t even make the claim to get that kind of attention in grade school.

“I’m trying to do what I can to help the team. I’m taking a bigger role,” said Lopez, who’s scored in double figures in every game this season, as he finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Unexpected and bloody energy: Coaches will always find a place in a rotation for guards who play tough and are unafraid to get dirty or even take a shot to the mouth, as well as teams looking for tough-minded guards who’ll challenge everything.

Enter David Nwaba, who’s taking his opportunity for more minutes in the absence of Kris Dunn and more recently Paul Zipser (late scratch), giving the Bulls a lift with 15 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes for his first double-double in 24 career games.

He played with the Lakers last season and the Bulls like his energy and athleticism here, so he had no problem using all 209 pounds of his body to take contact and give it as a way to prove himself with his chance.

“David was terrific,” Hoiberg said. “In the first half we couldn’t get anything going. He got us a couple fast-break baskets, got us an and-one just by rebound and taking off in transition. He’s always going to give you a hard defensive effort.”

Holiday made note of Nwaba blocking Cavs sharpshooter Kyle Korver in a preseason game a couple weeks ago as a mark of Nwaba’s tenaciousness, and a bloody lower lip courtesy of an inadvertent elbow from a Hawks player is another example of a tough player trying to make a name for himself in the league.

“What I plan on bringing is energy,” Nwaba said. “Looking to push in transition, get to the basket. We have a lot of shooters so it’s important somebody attack the basket.”

Whether it’s here or anywhere else, he knows eyes are watching and he’s forming his own identity for how he’ll be evaluated around the league.

“Majority of guys at my position are usually shooters,” Nwaba said. “I try to help the team as much as possible whether it’s rebounding or driving to the basket. Try to do the little things to help the team out. It’s important for every team to have guys like that.”

Tough road ahead, the win was necessary: When players and coaches say they don’t look ahead to other games on the schedule, they’re lying.

The Bulls have played high-level playoff teams and on the horizon are teams with aspirations on getting beyond round one of the playoffs. To say a win was needed for overall team morale considering everything swirling around the Bulls isn’t overstating it.

A game against the Hawks, a team that has the same aspirations for lottery balls the Bulls do, won’t rank up high at the end of the season but for the moment it was critical to team sanity.

Oklahoma City, Miami and Orlando are up next, with Miami and Orlando being on the road.

“We expect to win those games, too,” Holiday said. “With the games we’ve had to this point, this was one we wanted to start that confidence and get going. Hopefully we can move this to Saturday and surprise them.”

After the Hawks got up 86-85 with 1:48 left, Holiday slipped backdoor from Kent Bazemore for a layup that restored order, a change from his usual drifts to the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

Count Lopez among those impressed with the team’s approach and lack of panic.

“They got up on us late in the fourth quarter so to have that mental fortitude, make the plays and get the stops, win the game, that’s big for us,” Lopez said. “Nobody has been able to question our effort so far.”

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

Just as we all predicted, two rookies stole the show in L.A.

There's not often hype surrounding a game between two of the NBA's worst teams, but Tuesday's Bulls-Lakers matchup was intriguing to many because it offered a chance to see a pair of top rookies compete. 

Oh, but you didn't think we meant Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, did you?

Nah, it was two different, less-touted first-year players that ended up stealing the spotlight at the Staples Center. 

Kyle Kuzma and Antonio Blakeney may not be household names, but they sure played like they were in the Bulls' 103-94 loss. 

Kuzma, the Lakers rook drafted 27th overall, has been a spark for Luke Walton's squad all season long. Boasting a terrific scoring arsenal, the Utah product carried the load for the Lakers' offense in the first half, dropping 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He finished the game as L.A.'s leading scorer with 22 in 40 minutes. But if you still need a more in-depth scouting report on Kuzma, just let Lonzo break it down:  

More importantly for Bulls fans, though, was the play of their undrafted guard who's signed to a two-way deal. 

Blakeney, the unofficial Summer League MVP, came off the bench on Tuesday and immediately left his mark on the game. The 21-year-old out of LSU posted 15 in the first half, finishing through contact as well as connecting on outside jumpers. 

Blakeney's shooting isn't reliable quite yet, but his energy has clearly influenced Hoiberg's rotation. The guard went from playing one NBA minute in the Bulls' first 11 games to playing 75 in the last four. Given that his two-way deal allows him to only spend 45 days with the team, it'll be fascinating to see how creative Gar Forman and John Paxson will get with his contract if this type of production continues. 

In a season that's obviously going to have its share of rough moments, an offseason flyer hitting is a huge plus for the rebuild. 

As for the recognized rookies, Lonzo's shooting woes persisted and Markkanen had maybe his worst offensive performance of his young Bulls career. Combined, they finished 7-for-30 with 21 points. Not ideal. 

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

Zach LaVine cleared for contact practice

The Zach LaVine comeback is one step closer as the shooting guard was cleared for contact practice after checking with his doctors in California. 

LaVine will go through a step by step process over the next few weeks and the Bulls will gauge his progress to see when the best time for his return will be. 

But, given the nine-month process from his ACL injury he suffered in February, he's right on track and there doesn't appear to be any setbacks. 

"There’s no real timeframe, I guess," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said at practice Monday. "It’s really going to be on how he feels. We’ll try to do a little more every day with him. We did a little bit, got him some light contact today just to get the process started.

"He’ll be able to play a little two-on-two with not a lot of practice time these next 10 days. But we’ll throw him out there and continue to try to get him feeling better. There’s going to be a mental hurdle that he’s going to have to clear as well. I know he’s excited. His teammates are excited and the coaches are obviously excited as well."

LaVine's recovery has gone as planned since his arrival in Chicago from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night. Targeting a mid-December return seems realistic but of course, the Bulls will take every precaution to make sure he's healthy for the long term, both for LaVine and the franchise, as he's a restricted free agent this summer--and they have no plans on letting him walk. 

LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago recently that he wants to get on the floor immediately but the Bulls know they'll have to protect him from himself in the meantime. 

"He’s going to have to string together a lot of really good days, and he knows that," Hoiberg said. "He understands that. The important thing is he’s right on track from where it was said after the injury. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab. He’s on time. He’s doing everything that’s asked of him. His strength numbers are where they’re supposed to be. I’m confident he’s going to keep making progress. But we’ll absolutely monitor it daily and hopefully it’ll just continue to get better."

The Bulls aren't sure if they'll send LaVine to the G-League but it's certain they have plans on not only how to use him when he steps on the floor but also a regimen they've stuck to, to ensure there are no real setbacks. 

Hoiberg has been salivating over having a true scorer at that position since trading for him, and LaVine has been eager since his arrival to prove to the Bulls and fans that he is a franchise player. 

Prudence in the moment of progression, though, appears to be the approach taken by both sides.