New York Knicks

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.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls battle Kristaps and the Knicks

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls battle Kristaps and the Knicks

Home sweet home! The Bulls are back at the United Center following a difficult three-game road trip and host Kristaps Porzingis and the Knicks. NBC Sports Chicago has you covered all night, beginning with Pregame Live at 6:30!

1. Back to back

The Bulls are facing a difficult task with a back-to-back against the Bucks and Knicks. They haven't played at home in a week, and they are just 1-5 on the second half of back-to-backs this season. However, the good news is that one win came at home against the Knicks back in December, as win No. 2 of their seven-game win streak. Depth will be key against a New York team that played Christmas Day (in the morning) and should be well rested despite the travel.

2. Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis looked like an MVP candidate during the season's first month but has cooled off some since. That's not to say he isn't dangerous, and he's still one of the game's great young players. Here's why. At 7-foot-3 he's the tallest player in the NBA, and he's averaging 24.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 3-pointers per game. The league has never seen those types of numbers combined, and he's still just 22 years old. He was good - not great - against the Bulls earlier this month, going for 23 points on 10-for-25 shooting. But don't expect the Unicorn to have two poor games against this Bulls defense. He can and will go off at a moment's notice.

3. Kris Dunn

Through the highs and the lows he's going to be the focal point of the rebuild until Zach LaVine comes back. Dunn has had some seriously impressive stretches, and then nights like he had against the Celtics. And in a point-guard driven league he's going to face solid tests each time he steps on the floor. This time it'll come in the form of Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina. The 6-foot-5 French point guard has a 7-foot wingspan and has really proven his worth on the defensive end. He doesn't start for New York (because of course Jarrett Jack needs those minutes) but Ntilikina is averaging 21.6 minutes over his last five games. Jeff Hornacek will insert at times to slow Dunn. Another day, another good test to see how far Dunn has come. Ntilikina had 10 points, seven assists and a steal in 21 minutes back on Dec. 9.

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.