Lauri Markkanen

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Mavericks

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Mavericks

Howdy! The Bulls are back in action Friday night to take on the semi-resurgent (wins in four of five) Mavericks on NBC Sports Chicago+. Tune in all night, beginning with Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m. Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill will get you ready for tip! Here are three things to watch for when these two teams square off.

1. Dennis Smith: One of the league's most exciting rookies is playing some of his best basketball of the year as the Bulls come to town. Hampered by a hip injury earlier in the year - he sat for six games in December - Smith has averaged 18.0 points, 8.0 assists and 1.0 steal in his last three games. That included games against the Pelicans, Thunder and Warriors. Smith vs. Kris Dunn will be the matchup of the night.

2. Dirk Nowitzki: The Bulls will play Dallas again in March, but this could be your second-to-last chance at seeing Dirk Nowitzki. Now in his 20th season, Nowitzki is certainly coming close to the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he's still starting and puts together a few plays every night that reminds you why he became an all-time great. In 25.4 minutes per game this year he's averaging 12.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.

3. Lauri Markkanen: But hey, you get to watch Baby Dirk for years to come! Seriously, Markkanen has been a pleasure to watch in his rookie season and he's only getting better as the year has gone on. The Finnish 7-footer is averaging 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds over his last four games, and he's shooting 54 percent from the field and 43 percent from deep. That little lull to end 2017 didn't last long at all. Lauri is back and he should have a big night against a porous Mavericks defense.

Bulls streak tempting but it shouldn't alter plan

Bulls streak tempting but it shouldn't alter plan

It’s tempting, certainly.

With every Lauri Markkanen glimpse of stardom and every Nikola Mirotic eye-popping triple, it’s temping to picture the possibilities.

The possibilities of bucking the odds and turning your own narrative upside down, from choosing a path on draft night that promised to be ugly to a road where “Parts Unknown” seems optimistic instead of ominous.

But the Bulls need to stay the course they selected five months ago and ignore the desire to see this version of their vision through.

Whatever it requires, however ugly it is, the Bulls must do what needs to be done with this rebuild. If it means sending Mirotic to a good team that needs shooting for a low first-round pick on Jan. 15, so be it.

There’s no prize in constructing a better roster than you planned, one that wins a few more games just to prove to the public that things weren’t as bad as projected.

Because seemingly, it only elevates you to purgatory and not the penthouse.

The Bulls thumped the Indiana Pacers 119-107 at the United Center to register their 10th win in 12 games and seven straight wins at home for the first time since the end of the 2012-13 season and start of the next campaign.

The Pacers were without All-Star candidate Victor Oladipo, but it’s highly unlikely he, at 6-foot-4, would’ve bothered Mirotic’s rocket launches from the perimeter or Markkanen’s smooth release.

The duo combined for 60 points and 13 of the Bulls’ team-record tying 18 triples as Fred Hoiberg keeps throwing out different lineups and they keep working.

Ever since trading Jimmy Butler on draft night and getting Markkanen, Hoiberg had been salivating over using the two big men together—stretching the floor, stressing defenses and scoring at a pace the United Center scoreboard hasn’t been used to considering the previous era of ground-and-pound ball.

“We’ve been trying to play those lineups with those two guys out there at the same time and I thought they were pretty good out there,” Hoiberg said.

Markkanen had a career night with 32 points after there was a school of thought he was headed for an extensive slump no less than four days ago. Like a toddler learning how to walk, defenses can’t keep their eyes off Mirotic for one second or else he’s launching from wherever he catches—or spinning off a defender in the post—or firing a pass to an open shooter in the corner.

“Lauri had an amazing game too. I’m very happy for him,” Mirotic said. “The team is growing, we’re all excited and having fun. Each game we’re understanding more how to play. When he’s rolling and popping, I’m trying to find him in the low post the same way he’s trying to find me.”

And considering the revelation Kris Dunn has become, the point guard many around the league thought was broken after his rookie year and was an afterthought in the Butler deal, one could be seduced into thinking the Bulls are a lot closer to being a playoff team than before.

Even with Dunn being a late scratch, revealing with eight minutes before tipoff his knee tendinitis was too bothersome to play, backup Jerian Grant stepped forward with a career-high 12 assists to go with 11 points and seven rebunds.

Add in the headliner of the Butler deal, Zach LaVine, readying himself for a debut that will drop in athleticism and shot creation to the Hoiberg system, could John Paxson and Gar Forman be talked into taking a shortcut and pulling the plug on securing the (Marvin) Bagley or whatever twitter hashtag will be applied for Luca Doncic and DeAndre Ayton?

Perhaps they could be persuaded, but they shouldn’t be.

They did beat Philadelphia without Joel Embiid and Boston without Kyrie Irving along with the Pacers missing Oladipo, so there could be a little grain of salt in this sweet streak.

“I think if you put the small goals out there, the bigger goals take care of themselves,” Hoiberg said. “If you go out there and play hard and play with great effort have attention to the game plan and the small details, then generally you’re gonna be in it at the end of the game.”

And likely, at the end of the regular season, too.

They’re a different team than the outfit that left Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Dec. 6, losers of 10 straight games and chugging along to the ocean of the Eastern Conference.

“(Since) we had that devastating loss, our guys have really kind of found themselves, found each other and we’ve really made good, unselfish plays,” Hoiberg said.

The Bulls had another 30-plus assist evening, with 31 helpers on Friday and averaged 25.8 assists in the 11 games since the heartbreaker to the Pacers. They’ve averaged 108 points and shot 47 percent in that period, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Eastern Conference Coach of the Month who also presided over the top three pick in the next season’s draft—yes, Hoiberg will likely come away with the coaching hardware for December, as he should.

He’s found a way to integrate Mirotic into the rotation, pairing him with Bobby Portis and magically, it’s worked. His positive, encouraging style has helped rebuild Dunn into a player who doesn’t look over his shoulder, into a player who plays empowered.

Hoiberg’s competence and effectiveness as a coach has been just as much a discovery to the general public as Dunn has been. The most recent vision of Hoiberg was the coach standing on the sidelines, helpless as the Boston Celtics embarrassed the Bulls in Game 6 of their first-round series last April.

The chants of “Fire Hoiberg!” were so audible, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was seen muttering “shut up” under his breath as an act of mercy to his comrade in the profession.

Now, for the first time in his three years as Bulls coach, Hoiberg’s job performance isn’t being questioned as the team heads into January. For the first time, it’s being lauded—and deservedly so.

But a long rebuild shouldn’t hinge on a streak that looks good and feels good in the moment. Hoiberg and Dunn being evaluated this positively is almost gravy for the franchise but they shouldn’t push their luck.

Do what you set out to do.

Observations: Grimy Dunn, Bad Bulls/Worse Knicks, Good Markkanen

Observations: Grimy Dunn, Bad Bulls/Worse Knicks, Good Markkanen

The Bulls are grimy—and that’s an affectionate term considering the way the Bulls have found comfort in playing in close games recently. Kris Dunn might be the Bull best equipped to play in such conditions, so it’s no surprise he found Lauri Markkanen streaking downcourt for a dunk when neither team could get anything close to a basket in the last four minutes or so.

It was also Dunn who made the ensuing free throws with seven seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead at 90-87.

“I just told the team to keep grinding, neither team is making baskets, somebody is gonna make one,” Dunn said. “Don't let it be them. That's what I tried to preach to them.”

Dunn is garnering kudos for his offensive play in recent weeks but make no mistake, this is the kid who won defensive player of the year twice in the Big East at Providence, so this ugly game took him back to his roots.

“Yeah, that's Big East play,” Dunn said. “When I was a freshman, we had Louisville, UConn, Pittsburgh, all those teams. You had to grind it out. There would be times where you don't score for four minutes, because both teams are playing that good of defense.”

Dunn had been Mr. Fourth Quarter recently but missed all five of his shots this time around. It didn’t deter him from staying with it mentally, and the team is still following him.

His stat line of 17 points, five rebounds and five assists won’t go in the annals, but it is another step in terms of his leadership.

“They look at me when it comes to the fourth quarter, they feel I could be a leader, the coaching staff does too,” Dunn said. “I'm taking it as a challenge. I'm not backing down from nobody. I'm gonna just try to make the right plays, make the right reads, and see what happens. I'm not gonna hang my head, sometimes it's gonna go bad. It ain't gonna be perfect, but don't hang your head. Know that you're out there battling.”

The Knicks? The Knicks!: Looking at the Knicks’ record, it’s no wonder why they’re closer to the .500 mark than a few games above. Their set offense in the final quarter—and honestly throughout the game, looked atrocious. Rookie Frank Ntilikina will grow into a good NBA player from these eyes and veteran Jarrett Jack has been a stabilizing force at point guard while the rookie learns.

But one would think an offense drawn up by Jeff Hornacek would look…something other than offensive. Yes, the Bulls dragged them into the muck of fatigue they played in due to an emotional win over the Bucks just 24 hours before, but there seemed to be very little in getting easy looks for Kristaps Porzingis in terms of set plays. He was nine of 22 from the field after a strong start and didn’t get much help from the coaching staff.

The Knicks’ scoring decreased in every quarter as they put up just 35 points in the second half, shooting an abysmal 34 percent. Scorer Tim Hardaway Jr’s injury has made things difficult, but Hornacek played Michael Beasley just five minutes in the second half Wednesday night.

The same Beasley who scored 23 and then 32 against the Boston Celtics on national TV a week ago was the same Beasley who played 13 minutes the next night after dazzling against the Celtics.

Perhaps this observation is being too tough on Hornacek, considering point guard and shooting guard aren’t exactly plentiful with scorers on the roster. But when you draw up a play that looks like this when you’re down three and can tie it, there’s something wrong all the way around.

Ugh.

Markkanen: Just when you think Markkanen is ready to head for an extended slump, he breaks out in a big enough way. The rookie made the big play for the dunk to break the drought, and then stepped in front of Doug McDermott’s pass to Courtney Lee on the next possession to trigger the fast break.

Not to mention the clean swat on Porzingis’ turnaround jumper that was erroneously called a foul from the refs. Yes, he was five for 15, but he was a team-high plus-15 while on the floor so that has to count for something.

It started in the season opener against Toronto when he closed out on Serge Ibaka as well as any seven-foot rookie most have seen, and his defensive awareness has continued to surprise ever since.

“He's shown a great ability to move his feet, to stay in front of his man with great anticipation. He's a smart defender, he understands rotations,” Hoiberg said. “It's not easy to grasp, it's such a different concept than the college game with all the rotations that happens at the NBA level. The big thing with Lauri is his IQ and it's helping him on the defensive end of the floor.”

Ugly Bulls too: Let’s not let the Bulls off the hook here, either. Their offense was a far cry from what they’ve displayed in the last 10 games or so, with two surges providing the majority of their scoring.

It was an 18-6 run after they trailed 46-31 midway in the second quarter that brought the game to a workable deficit, and a quick third quarter spurt from Dunn (11 points) that kept the Knicks from running away and hiding after they jumped out to a 59-49 lead in the opening moments.

“Just pick up my energy. My energy was pretty down in the first quarter, first half. I tried to pick up my energy,” Dunn said of the third quarter.

Nikola Mirotic only found four shots, hitting two. Bobby Portis played just 13 minutes and went three for eight. The Bulls were beat, they were dragging all the way to 41 percent shooting and 36 percent from 3-point range.

They just made sure they dragged the Knicks just a little bit more.