Kris Dunn

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.

Kris Dunn's Jekyll and Hyde performances continue in Bulls' ugly loss to Pacers

Kris Dunn's Jekyll and Hyde performances continue in Bulls' ugly loss to Pacers

For most of Wednesday night Kris Dunn looked like everything the Bulls wanted in a point guard of the future. He was attacking the basket, finding open shooters (who were knocking those shots down) and playing his usual aggressive style of defense.

He was the catalyst for a Bulls team that looked ready to end their nine-game winning streak in impressive fashion, going wire-to-wire with a Pacers team that entered the night 7-4 at home.

But for as well as Dunn performed - finishing with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists - what Bulls fans will remember is his inability to close the game in an eventual 98-96 loss.

With the Bulls leading by four with 1:48 to go, Dunn missed badly on a floater, grabbed his own rebound and promptly turned the ball over. That led to a Pacers jumper from Corey Joseph, and Victor Oladipo drained a 3-pointer after Denzel Valentine dribbled the ball over to the Pacers' swingman the previous trip down. Out of a timeout Dunn got stiffed by Oladipo and had to settle for a contest 20-footer from the left wing. That shot missed, and Oladipo hit 1 of 2 free throws.

With a chance to win the game Dunn couldn't initiate the Bulls into any semblance of a set and had to settle for a wild Lauri Markkanen 3, which clanged off the backboard and sent the Bulls to a 10th straight loss.

The two misses and turnover both hurt from Dunn directly, but Valentine's turnover and Markkanen's missed shot can also be attributed to him. Dunn has proven capable of running the offense - he did it superbly for most of the game - but wasn't there down the stretch to make a play or set up a play to help the Bulls close it out.

It washed away a really solid performance from Dunn, who actually stopped a 7-0 run just before that ugly sequence with a drive and layup to push the Bulls back out in front, 96-92.

Dunn scored or assisted on 20 of the Bulls' first 25 points, and he scored eight points in the third quarter to keep the Pacers at bay. He played 34 minutes and half his shots came in the paint (plus three free throws). He was aggressive (one of his turnovers was a charge in the paint) and kept pace with the 9th-fastest offense in the league.

But he couldn't close things for the Bulls when they needed a ball handler and a decision maker. Perhaps it'll be a good lesson for Dunn, who continues to show growth in Year 2. He's averaged 16.4 points and 6.4 assists over his last five games, shooting 55 percent from the field and 64 percent from deep (9-for-14). There's more good than bad for Dunn this year. Unfortunately we'll remember the bad on Wednesday.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

- Denzel Valentine was outstanding in the first half. He finished cold from the field (5 of 13) but really gave the Bulls a spark before halftime. He passed well (three assists) and made an effort to crash the boards, which then initiated the offense. He's not great at any one thing, but he really does contribute in multiple areas.

- For all Valentine did in the first half, it was David Nwaba's show in the second half. The rust from sitting out multiple weeks is clearly gone, as he finished with 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting, three rebounds, a steal and a block in 22 minutes. He actually played the most of any Bulls reserve, and even saw first quarter minutes. But he went to work in the second half, and he scored a pair of buckets and added a block and steal in a 3-minute span in the fourth quarter. He'll continue to get minutes.

- The Bulls had five assists in the first 7 minutes of the game, and just 11 more in the final 41 minutes. For whatever reason, ball movement stopped and it really hurt in the second half when shots weren't falling. Again, this can fall on Dunn, although he was attacking and taking what the Indiana defense gave him.

- As Insider Vincent Goodwill noted, Lauri Markkanen seemed to have tired legs tonight. Perhaps it was having to guard the ever-active Thaddeus Young, but his shot looked short almost as soon as it left his hand (1-for-6 from deep) and he wasn't all that physical. He also had three turnovers after just four combined in his last five games. He'll surely bounce back against the Hornets on Friday.

NBA Draft Tracker: Alabama PG Collin Sexton

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Alabama PG Collin Sexton

While most NBA draft evaluators are focused on the group of talented big men at the top of the 2018 pool, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton should hear his name called somewhere in the Top 10 next June.

Sexton put on one of the most amazing displays we've ever seen during a Thanksgiving week tournament. The 6-foot-3 freshman poured in 40 points in a loss to Minnesota, scoring 17 points in the final 10-plus minutes while his team was forced to play 3-against-5 because of ejections and injuries. Even though the nationally-ranked Gophers knew the ball would be in Sexton's hands, they still couldn't stop him. Alabama actually outscored Minnesota during the 3-against-5 stretch, and that was due to the brilliant play of their point guard.

Since point guards Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball were the first two picks in 2017, there might not be a high demand at that position for teams selecting at the top of next summer's draft. Still, Sexton might be able to crack the Top 5 if he continues to play at his current pace. He's averaging nearly 25 points a game while shooting right around 50 percent from the field and 48 percent from the 3-point line. Sexton can create his own shot and is a good finisher at the rim.

It seems unlikely the Bulls would be interested in drafting a point guard with their high 1st-round pick after acquiring former Top 5 selection Kris Dunn in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota. Dunn is already an impact player on the defensive end and his offensive game has been better than advertised. The Bulls also have three other young PGs on the roster in Jerian Grant, Cameron Payne and Kay Felder.

Having an elite point guard is a requirement for contending teams in today's NBA, so whether or not teams have a primary need at that spot, a dynamic player like Sexton will generate a lot of interest as we approach draft night next June.