Kris Dunn

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn have moments in highlight-filled rising stars challenge

LOS ANGELES—Kris Dunn wanted to have some fun in the Rising Stars game while Lauri Markkanen wanted to get a win.

Both accomplished their goals, being on opposite sides for the first time as the best first and second year players were divided into U.S. and International teams, with the World Team winning 155-124 Friday night at Staples Center.

It wasn’t set up for either Dunn or Markkanen to truly stand out considering the presence of Lakers and Celtics players who were more notable and flashy, along with the spectacular exploits of rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Dennis Smith Jr (Denver).

Those two certainly wowed the crowd at times with half-court alley-oop passes, giving a preview of what Saturday night will look like, considering both will be in the dunk contest.

Dunn scored nine points in 18 minutes while Markkanen scored 15 in 22 minutes. Both came off the bench, ceding to the likes of Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (29 points) and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who turned the game into his own 3-point showcase with 30-foot bombs, hitting seven triples for 26 points off the bench.

Boston’s Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 35 points and 10 rebounds, playing for the U.S. team, showing his entire bag of tricks with spectacular dunks and dribble moves for jumpers.

Markkanen had his moments in the “game within a game” category. When prompted by World coach Rex Kalamian that the first player to get a block would get $100, Markkanen tipped the next shot at the rim and pointed to the scorer’s table, but wasn’t credited with the block.

However, he felt like he got his pound of flesh with Dunn on a tip-dunk. The two didn’t have their moment

“I almost jumped over his head. That counts,” he joked.

Dunn made sure that although he and Markkanen were on opposite sides that he remained Markkanen’s biggest fan.

When asked who was his pick for rookie of the year, he repeatedly said “Lauri Markkanen”, over the likes of Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, another standout rookie.

His reasoning was simple.

“Why? He hit eight threes in Madison Square Garden,” Dunn said, half-jokingly.

Half-jokingly.

“For Lauri to be a rookie and have so much confidence in himself and to play in big time games, especially at Madison Square Garden. I’m gonna keep bringing that game up. Because He had eight three’s. You don’t see that too mnay times. Lauri is a big player for us,” Dunn said.

Markkanen probably won’t win the award but to see Dunn so steadfastly support his teammate in this way is a good sign for a budding relationship, despite the light moments of competitiveness where Dunn said he wanted to take advantage of Markkanen on the perimeter.

Markkanen’s game has been aided by Dunn on the floor and one could see how the quality of looks Markkanen had in the past few weeks suffered with Dunn out due to a concussion.

Dunn’s turnaround directly led to the Bulls turning around their season in December, and he remembers what he was doing this time last year at the All-Star break when he wasn’t selected to be part of the rookie challenge.

“Thibs had me in the gym,” Dunn said.

It seemed unlikely but he’s rebounded nicely, being a shoo-in for 15 points, eight assists and two steals on a nightly basis. Turning the corner has been a bright spot in the season.

“I wouldn’t say a specific game but each and every game I started to get more comfortable, not with myself but with my team,” Dunn said. “Being a point guard, you gotta build that chemistry with your teammates and try to figure out where everybody needs the ball. How you can be aggressive and lead at the same time.”

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Mismatched pieces: Kris Dunn made his return after a near-month absence from a concussion he suffered against Golden State, and immediately you could see the small dividends.

On the first possession, he pulled up for a midrange jumper, showing no ill effects from the injury. He also drove to the basket and played relatively aggressive, which is a hallmark to his effectiveness.

He didn’t stand out statistically but the Bulls’ pace was evident in his 20 minutes, as he totaled eight points and three assists.

What will be critical over the final 25 games after the All-Star break is the on-floor chemistry between Dunn and Zach LaVine.

LaVine was coming off one of his best stretches as a pro, averaging 25.3 points and six rebounds over his last four games. The production regressed a bit, as the Raptors showed why they’re one of the top 10 teams on both ends of the floor—particularly defensively as the driving lanes weren’t plentiful aside from a couple athletic takes to the rim.

He only finished with seven points in 27 minutes, but 14 games into his season, anomalies are expected.

If this game were closer, one of the questions would be around how the Bulls would navigate late-game execution between Dunn and LaVine. LaVine was aggressive late in the wins against the Timberwolves and Magic, while Fred Hoiberg termed Dunn the Bulls’ “closer” when they went on their remarkable run after starting 3-20.

Hoiiberg didn’t want to truly entertain the “who’s the man” question before the game because…well, these two have only played four games together this season.

Last year there wasn’t much time to play together because Dunn didn’t play much and LaVine was hurt by midseason.

“You definitely have to find the chemistry out there,” Dunn said. “When you find the chemistry and the right groove and everybody knows each other, things are a lot easier. It’s only been four games. It’ll take time. Hopefully we get it right away in the second half.”

If there’s an issue of actual substance for the last third of the season, it’s probably not figuring out the Cam Payne conundrum that will get people’s juices going headed into 2018-19, it’ll be figuring out how the backcourt of the future performs together.

“Kris has been good. I have chemistry with him from our days in Minnesota,” LaVine said. “For all of us getting to know each other, still. Me, him, Lauri, getting to know each other and meshing. We weren’t as competitive as we should’ve been, and aggressive. We gotta get better with that.”

Speaking of backcourts: The backcourt of the present, Toronto’s All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, didn’t have to play like their All-Star selves for the Raptors to cruise to an easy win.

Lowry has continued his all-around play with 20 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, taking just 10 shots in his 27 minutes while hitting four triples. DeRozan, who had a field day against the Bulls in his earlier visit to the United Center with 35 points, only went 3-for-11 in 28 minutes for seven points and eight assists.

But that’s the beauty of these Raptors, who’ve continued to build around their backcourt and evolved into one of the league’s most versatile and deepest teams as they have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 41-16.

Their bench combined for 56 points and hammered the Bulls in the paint for 60 points, shooting 52 percent from the field and taking a 26-point lead. They have length and athleticism along with youth and energy—in most other years, they could be a real threat to qualify for the NBA Finals.

Too bad the Cleveland Cavaliers exist and more specifically, LeBron James. The Cavs beefed up at the deadline and now look like the favorites to get back to the Finals—and they’ll likely have to get through the Raptors to get there.

“Dwane Casey has done an unbelievable job with that team,” Hoiberg said. “Absolutely phenomenal. And that team is playing with so much confidence and swagger.”

Effort: It’s been awhile since the Bulls’ effort could truly come into question. Their execution, talent level and decision-making has been what held them back in most of their losses in the last month or so.

With 48 minutes between them and a much-needed All-Star break, the Bulls slept through their alarm clock and kept hitting the snooze button.

After taking a six-point lead in the first quarter, they were outscored by 30 in the last three.

“It reminded me of an earlier stretch in the season when adversity hit us and we shut down, and that can’t happen,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to keep playing, we’ve got to keep battling, which we’ve done a very good job of for the most part this season.”

Hoiberg even picked up his second technical of the season, being so frustrated with the officiating and his team’s energy level. Shooting just four of 24 from three tends to gray Hoiberg’s hair a little quicker than most nights.

LaVine said, “we sucked”, which put Hoiberg’s sentiments much more succinctly.

“I think it got the best of us,” Dunn said. “Shots just weren’t falling and when it doesn’t fall then adversity hits and when it does, we just got to be able to fight through it. They were comfortable the whole game.

Leading: Dunn’s words sounded just like Hoiberg’s, and if you take the position that the leader of the team and coach need to be on the same accord, it shouldn’t be surprising Dunn plans to take a more vocal role for the final 25 games.

He purposely didn’t want to assert himself so strongly to start the year, he said. It could’ve been in part because his early play wouldn’t have garnered the currency to be a leader (remember the late behind-the-back pass in Phoenix), but since early December, he’s been the catalyst.

“I stepped back because we had so many veterans and other players to be the leaders. I just went out there to do it with action,” Dunn said.

In these 11 games he’s been out, Dunn’s presence and qualities haven’t been duplicated. They’ve played hard but have missed his passion and confidence that borders on arrogance (remember the yelling to the crowd as he closed a win against the Utah Jazz in December), but it’s been necessary.

Averaging 15 points, eight assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals in his last 21 games gives him the type of currency in the locker room to lead. He deferred to Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Quincy Pondexter.

Clearly it’s been part of a master plan, a plan one can say he executed to near-perfection.

“Now I want to start trying to be a vocal leader, carrying to the second half and the summer and next season, starting the year quicker.”

Already looking to next year is probably music to most fans’ ears.

But there’s 100 quarters left to play.

The countdown is on.

Kris Dunn back at Bulls practice, and with all of his teeth

Kris Dunn back at Bulls practice, and with all of his teeth

Kris Dunn has never been one to play with fear, so even though his concussion triggered a three-week recovery period, it didn’t stop him from watching the scary fall against Golden State plenty of times.

Perhaps it was therapeutic or even an exercise in realizing how lucky he was to retain all his teeth but Dunn is on the mend and hopes to be back on the floor soon as he returned to Bulls practice Wednesday afternoon.

“I played football so as long as those were in there, I’m good,” Dunn said.

Dunn has been ruled out for Friday’s game against the Timberwolves, but he hopes to be back before the All-Star break—which is over a week away.

He’ll be wearing braces when he returns, along with a mouthguard, but said he wouldn’t do anything differently the next time he has a breakaway situation.

“Nah, I’m going to go dunk it for sure,” Dunn said. “You can’t be scared when things like this happen. You just have to keep doing what you do.”

Concussion symptoms came and went during the last few weeks, as Dunn has missed the last eight games, with the Bulls losing the last seven. Since the Bulls began their turnaround in early December, Dunn was a catalyst as he claimed the point guard spot.

He’s averaged 15 points, eight assists and 2.2 steals in his last 21 games, with the Bulls going 13-8 in that span.

He proved his value by his mere absence, although it wasn’t the way he would’ve liked to show it.

“The concussion protocol was a pain,” Dunn said. “When I thought I felt good, it just kept rising some days. I’d go outside, try to take walks and clear my head and it wasn’t doing well. It took awhile but now I’m doing good.”

Depending on how one looks at it, Dunn knew what to expect due to suffering a concussion in summer league shortly after being drafted by the Timberwolves.

“A lot of headaches,” Dunn said. “You’re going to feel fog some days, low energy, fatigue. I never slept so much. In the daytime, you’ll just go to sleep out of nowhere. And then at night, you’ll be up all night. It was tough to get through. I’m just happy to be back.”

“Last week. I just felt fine. I wasn’t doing the things I was doing before. I wasn’t sleeping during the day. I wasn’t getting the headaches during the day or at night. I’m a high energy guy. I like to laugh and all that. And I had that bounce to me. Everybody started to see me getting better. It was just a process of trying to maintain and keeping that energy.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said he’ll have to clear one more hurdle before going to the team doctors and being cleared for further activity.

“He hasn't done anything,” Hoiberg said. “His inactivity will prevent him from playing anytime soon. But the important thing is he was able to do some non-contact drills yesterday, he's been on the treadmill, he's completed the bike portion.”