Bulls

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Rubio and the Jazz

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USA TODAY

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Rubio and the Jazz

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Bulls take on the Utah Jazz on Sunday on NBC Sports Chicago+ and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. This is an entirely different team without Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert is the best post defender in the NBA, and he's the main reason Utah has one of the best defenses in the league every year. But a bone bruise in his right knee has kept him out since Nov. 11, and he was slated to miss four-to-six weeks when first diagnosed. The Jazz had the NBA's third best defense (100.2) at the time of the injury. Since then Utah's defense rating has skyrocketed to 106.9, good for 21st best in the NBA over the last two weeks. The Bulls have struggled on offense this season, but without Gobert they should be able to get inside more and score a few easy buckets.

2. Ricky Rubio dazzles every time out

It seems as though Ricky Rubio has been around forever, but he's still just 27 years old. And in his first season away from the Timberwolves he's enjoying one of his best seasons. He's up to 13.2 points per game with Utah, and while his assists are at a career-low (5.1) he's still leading a Jazz offense that has been top-10 since Gobert's injury. He's also one of the league's best defenders, so Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant will get all they can handle against him.

3. Great time to see them

The Jazz are without their leader in Gobert and are just coming off a four-game East Coast road trip in which they went 1-3. After a 5-3 start they have lost eight of their last 10 games and are just settling back in. If there was ever a perfect time for the Bulls to be seeing the Jazz it's now. Of course the Bulls will be playing on a back-to-back, but this is as close to best-case scenario as you're going to get against Utah.

Click here to find the NBC Sports Chicago+ channel in your area.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn pass necessary test as Bulls claim first winning streak

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn pass necessary test as Bulls claim first winning streak

The New York Knicks provided the perfect type of test for the Bulls, in the most imperfect conditions but a test of growth and morale.

It’s certainly a game with its share of warts but seeing the Bulls put together their first winning streak of the season with a nail-biting 104-102 win at the United Center had more successes than failures.

Kristaps Porzingis was staring Lauri Markkanen in the face, finally getting hot and finding a rhythm after struggling early. Once he got the Bulls rookie on his hip, he exploded to the rim for a dunk that gave the Knicks a one-point lead in the third.

“Short, short," Porzingis yelled the next time down as Markkanen gave Porzingis a taste of his own medicine, albeit with a mid-range jumper as opposed to a drive.

By the time Porzingis was done barking, Markkanen was already backpedaling to the other end as his jumper was true.

Passed.

There was Kris Dunn, one night after playing a strong game against the Hornets, trying to put together a second straight performance, having earned the trust of Fred Hoiberg to put the ball in his hands late.

Dunn drove on Knicks guard Courtney Lee and got a foul called—a ticky-tack call but a call—with 2.9 seconds left. Dunn hit both free throws to complete his 17-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound evening.

“It was a design play. Attack him. He was on my hip, and I tried to finish the layup,” Dunn said.

Passed.

The Bulls nearly giving away the game doesn’t make anyone look good in the light, but it’s better to learn in the midst of an “almost” loss than another soul-crushing, spirit-dropping defeat—Hoiberg has had plenty of those that have turned his youthful look into nearly a salt-and-pepper, gruff appearance.

“We need to get a little more movement in the last two minutes there, that’s on me,” Hoiberg said.

Having six players in double figures, including Nikola Mirotic hit five triples for 19 points in his home debut this season, is certainly an eye-catcher for the immediate future and January when the trade market opens up.

“It felt great,” Mirotic said. “I know we’ve had a lot of ups and downs but like I said this team is going in a different direction. There are players who are improving a lot and we’re doing a good job.”

Then there’s the wild card, David Nwaba, streaking down the floor like a wide receiver that could be put to use on Sunday’s at Soldier Field. Hard to measure his value but the energy quotient goes up when he hits the floor.

Three plays in succession gave the Bulls a 100-92 lead that put them in the driver’s seat with two minutes remaining.

On a larger scale, though, it shows the Bulls front office can still mine a diamond in the rough every now and again, as acquisitions like Nwaba often go undersold—which is probably better for this front office given the gaffes in recent memory—but he can overdeliver and do it in flashes.

“I’m gonna give it right to him. That speed, nobody wants to get in front of that,” Dunn said. “It’s like (Russell) Westbrook, you wanna get in front of that? Go ahead. You take a charge, you’re gonna feel it the next morning.”

Nobody dared try, aside from Kyle O’Quinn on a Nwaba dunk attempt, but Nwaba’s 15 points and five rebounds were all impactful.

Passed.

Never mind the Bulls didn’t make it back to Chicago from Charlotte until early Saturday afternoon after some pilot issues, breaking their usual gameday routine while the Knicks were waiting and well-rested.

“It shows you a group that really cares and a group that is going to go out and compete every night regardless of what the circumstances are,” Hoiberg said.

Hoiberg knows he’s in a precarious situation, that the overall objective this season is not winning games. But he can’t have his team laying down for an opponent that jumps on them early and strips the Bulls of their spirit.

His personal wins come in small doses, like not having to take those early timeouts.

“Now we’re doing a good job of going out with the right mentality,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting after it on the defensive end and getting some push in the game.”

The “getting after it” can certainly apply to Markkanen, he of the quick feet, long arms and wide eyes who had his hands full with a player he’ll likely be compared to for fair and unfair reasons in Porzingis. Porzingis has had a steady growth after his draft standing was questioned coming out of Latvia, although the questions about Markkanen were more because watching Arizona play on the west coast is a tougher task for the east coast elite.

As Markkanen shown all year, even through his periodic struggles, he’s shown a willingness to compete and defend his position, never running from his matchup. He stayed with Porzingis and helped harass him into a 10-for-25 shooting night.

“It’s how competitive I am, giving my all, I’m happy with that,” said Markkanen when asked how he judged himself defensively. “If I look in the mirror and said I’ve done everything I can…if they still score, I gotta get back to the gym.”

He smirked when asked if he felt he did everything he could against Porzingis Saturday.

“He got a couple easy ones against me so I’ve gotta learn from those. Most of the time I think I’ve done a decent job.”

He chuckled.

He knows he did a better than decent job and in a season full of scheduled failures the Bulls had a necessary success.

Lauri Markkanen steps up late to help Bulls snap losing streak

Lauri Markkanen steps up late to help Bulls snap losing streak

Whether the Bulls won or not on Friday night in Indiana, Lauri Markkanen grew as a player. The Bulls did end up winning, snapping a 10-game losing streak with a 119-111 overtime victory over the Hornets. And Markkanen took another step in his progression, showing up when the Bulls needed him most.

Markkanen had played well in the buildup to the closing minutes, but it was that final stretch when he took over. With the Bulls nursing a one-point lead and Kemba Wlkare heating up, Markkanen took a 3-pointer from the top of the key and buried it. Nicolas Batum answered out of the timeout with a jumper, but Markkanen matched it with an isolation layup to push the lead back out.

And while the Bulls did blow that lead, Markkanen stayed poised in the extra period. His 3-pointer - again from Dunn - pushed the Bulls' lead to five, and he casually drained two free throws with 64 seconds left to extend the lead. In the last two minutes and overtime Markkanen was 3-for-3 with 10 points (two 3-pointers) and a rebound.

That seven-minute stretch was far different than the closing stretch he had just two days earlier in Indiana. Markkanen entered with 6:22 remaining and the Bulls leading by 11 points. The Bulls' rookie was invisible down the stretch, logging two personal fouls and missing two shots, including the potential game-winner at the buzzer.

That poise in the closing minutes was key. He finished with 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting (his first shooting performance over 50 percent in his last 10 games) and 12 rebounds, one off a career-high. He didn't do much else - one turnover - but made three 3s and hit all five free throws. He's actually made his last 14 free-throw attempts, pushing his average in that department up to 83 percent.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

- We chided Kris Dunn on Wednesday for struggling down the stretch, but he was fantastic with Markkanen on Friday. He did have an ugly turnover on a pick-and-pop that would have set up a wide open Markkanen in a one-point game, and he did miss a potential game-winner in regulation. But in overtime he scored or assisted on all three Bulls baskets (two assists and a layup) and also split two trips at the line. His final line was, again, some good and some bad. The good: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals, 0 turnover. The bad: 8-for-24 shooting, 5 fouls, two free throw misses late. All in all, a nice night for him.

- Nikola Mirotic returned in quiet fashion, going 2-for-7 from the field with 6 points and 3 rebounds. He also added a block in 15 minutes. Of particular note, he and Bobby Portis played together in the frontcourt on the second unit. Portis made all four of his shots and grabbed four rebounds in 15 minutes. That should be the second unit going forward, meaning not-so-great things for Cris Felicio (DNP-CD).

- David Nwaba filled up the box score once again, and he may start to take some Denzel Valentine minutes in the near future. Nwaba finished with 11 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks in a whopping 32 minutes. He entered the game with 3:29 left in the third quarter and was off the floor for just 19 seconds in the final 20:29.