Bulls

Bulls have makings of a real team as game week begins

Bulls have makings of a real team as game week begins

The next time the Bulls take the floor – Wednesday night in Charlotte – they’ll be playing for keeps, looking to make good on their verbalized goal of making the postseason for the first time in three seasons. They’re lofty goals for a team that won just 22 games a season ago, but they put the finishing touches on a promising preseason in their 111-93 victory over the Atlanta Hawks that has them feeling confident in what’s ahead.

True, it came against a Hawks team playing a rare back-to-back (with both games on the road) and one that was resting John Collins, but the Bulls once again shared the ball, played with urgency and continued their 2019 style in a game they led the final 38 minutes.

Coach Jim Boylen treated the game as a dress rehearsal for the season opener against the Hornets in six days, solidifying his 10-man rotation and getting significant contributions from both units. With star power in Zach LaVine and (hopefully) Lauri Markkanen, a supporting cast that’s buying in and a few promising youngsters, the next stage of the Bulls rebuild is shaping up nicely.

“I thought each guy had moments,” Boylen said after the game. “I thought we did a good job of getting the ball to the open people or the hot man…That’s what good teams do. They find the guy that’s got it rolling. They keep it rolling as long as they can. And then we pick each other up when maybe a group or section of the game where we’re struggling. I’m happy for that.”

It once again began with Zach LaVine, who finished a terrific preseason with 23 points on 11 shots in just 25 minutes. He was a model of efficiency – he didn’t attempt a midrange shot – and finished his four-game preseason stretch with 93 points in 96 minutes, shooting 32 of 54 (59.2%) and making 14 of 25 3-point attempts (56.0%). Every completed rebuild needs a player like how LaVine is playing right now. It should be an All-Star season for the 25-year-old.

Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter were quiet in the preseason but there’s not much to read in to about their performances. Wendell Carter Jr. shook off a couple injury scares and put together his best performance of his limited preseason, finishing with 8 points and 8 rebounds and drawing some praise from Boylen for his off-ball intangibles. He should be full-go in five days when the Bulls begin playing for keeps.

Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky did exactly what they’ve done their entire careers: They were quiet but effective, with the latter forming a solid tandem with any frontcourt player he appeared with, and the latter grabbing the starting point-guard reins.

The second unit remains a question mark, but it will enter the regular season with some serious momentum. Despite being officially demoted to the second unit just days earlier, Kris Dunn again drew praise from Boylen for his effort and energy that sparked the Bulls in the second quarter.

“I thought Kris Dunn’s energy off the bench changed the game,” Boylen said. “He got us going. His effort, his energy, his focus was great. Some nights we’re gonna be in mud, we’re gonna be a little sluggish. And he’s been practicing really hard and I was really proud of what he did in that moment to kind of get us going. I’m happy for him.”

Dunn may be able to stay on the floor thanks to the scoring prowess that rookie Coby White is showing. The seventh overall pick scored a game-high 29 points and made 6 of 8 3-pointers. That 3-for-30 effort in the Las Vegas Summer League feels like forever ago, and for a bench that lacks much scoring, White’s ability to do just that becomes even more significant. His last three preseason games: 23.6 points in 25.3 minutes. He had just one assist, but the Bulls will take that scoring and shooting right now.

Boylen called his stretch of triples in the third quarter “as good as we’ve seen in this building in a while.”

Luke Kornet has won the backup job over Daniel Gafford, while Ryan Arcidiacono (and presumably Chandler Hutchison when he returns from a hamstring injury) is ahead of Denzel Valentine, who Boylen said needs to “stay ready” despite not being in the 10-man rotation. The bench is the Bulls’ weakest spot, but even Boylen admitted they’re starting to get a little rhythm together.

The caveat, of course, is that it was just preseason. Everything changes when the games start counting. On the one hand, the Bulls’ first five opponents include one projected playoff team (Toronto), On the other hand, four of those first five games are on the road. What worked in preseason isn’t guaranteed to work in the regular season. But for what the Bulls could have proved in the preseason – that they’re forming a team with specific roles and players buying into them – they did to a T, and it should make for a promising Year 3 of a rebuild.

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Zach LaVine vows to help Lauri Markkanen's offense get back on track

Zach LaVine vows to help Lauri Markkanen's offense get back on track

Lauri Markkanen has a wicked sense of humor. Trust us. He does.

It’s when the camera lights turn on and the tape recorders start rolling that he slips into a more guarded phase, content to trade in the currency of cliché. Combine that dynamic with his mentality, which is to put the team before himself and never to rock the boat, and you’re not going to get much from the stoic Finn on his current struggles.

That’s where Zach LaVine steps in. LaVine and Markkanen, forever bonded by the Jimmy Butler trade, shoot straight with each other. And according to LaVine, Markkanen remains in a good place mentally, if not statistically.

“He just doesn’t seem in rhythm right now man. It’s a new offense. And I think it has a part to do with it,” LaVine said. “We just gotta help him find it. We’ve all gone through some struggles. I feel like everybody has been off rhythm in the beginning part of the year. I think everybody is shooting a lower field goal percentage than their (career) average.

“His spirits are still high. I know he’s worried about it but he’s not pressing yet. And I think that’s good to see. He hasn’t done anything out of character. He hasn’t lashed out or blamed anybody. He just wants to win. And that’s the type of player he is.”

Markkanen showed the world the type of player he can be last February with dominant double-double after dominant double-double. The organization publicly placed LaVine and Markkanen on a pedestal this offseason, declaring all offseason moves were made to clear the runway for their next steps.

Through 12 games, Markkanen is averaging a career low 14.4 points on career low 37.6 percent shooting and career low 27.8 percent 3-point shooting. His 11.8 shots per game also mark a career low and are well down from last season’s 15.3 per game.

“You can’t blame it all on the offense,” LaVine said. “Sometimes you have to go out there as a player and do what you do as well. That’s at least what I think.”

But what specifically about the offense does LaVine think is limiting Markkanen?

“It’s just different. We’re not getting as many postups. Like we’ve been showing, we’re trying to shoot 3s and get to the basket more,” LaVine said. “For somebody who I think is 7 foot, we just gotta get him some easy ones. Maybe him sometimes standing on the wing waiting for it isn’t the best for him.

“I think in the beginning I was trying to find my way with (the offense). I think it’s a little bit easier for me because I have the ball in my hand and I feel I can create a little better off the dribble and find my own shot. I think we have to help him find his easy shots. I told him, ‘If we’re in transition and you find a small, post up, man. Do what you do. Get in that rhythm. Get to the free throw line.’ I’m still out there trying to help him.

“We just have to do a better job of helping him get to his rhythm and find him. It sucks because you don’t want to see your guy out there struggling, especially you know how good he is and what he can do. He had that great first game. We haven’t been able to get back to it. We gotta find him some easy baskets to help him get in a rhythm. Without him, it’s going to be tough to play.”

Indeed, when Markkanen put up 35 points and 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte, flashbacks to February happened. Instead, Markkanen has posted three single-digit scoring games since and has attempted 10 or fewer shots in seven of 12 games.

“I think in general, the league is more prepared for him. I think in general, he's A-1 or A-2 on the scouting report and they're bringing physicality at him every night,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I also think we've demanded that he play better defense and more consistent defense. So being a two-way player at this level is very difficult.

“If you look at some of the matchup he's had, there are some tough matchups in our division, from (Kevin) Love to Giannis (Antetokounmpo) to Blake Griffin and these are all learning things for him. Yeah, we want him to be the Lauri Markkanen he was in February. We believe he can do that. Is he frustrated with that and does he want it? Of course.

“I show him the things he needs to do better. He understands what he needs to do. He's not a dummy. And he cares about the team. When he will break through, how he will break through---I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is he's trying to control the things he can control.”

Boylen has downplayed questions about Markkanen’s shot attempts, saying he’s playing the right way and taking what the game and defense dictate. But is that always a good thing? If Markkanen is a primary scoring option, should Coby White be attempting more shots in less playing time?

“He’s a young developing player. I think he’s had some moments where he can do better. I think he understands that. I think consistency for our group – not only him – has been a problem, and our growth plate for all of us,” Boylen said. “The thing I look at is does he continue to work and communicate and take ownership? I feel no delusional tendencies from him. He’s not making excuses, and as long as I see a guy working and caring, I believe he will play better and get back to who we think he can be.”

Maybe this will all blow over. Perhaps another dominant stretch is imminent. Until then, the questions will remain.

“He hasn’t been frustrated or pressing. He’s like, ‘I gotta get it going,’” LaVine said. “We’ve all missed some easy ones. When you’re in rhythm, those easy ones are automatic. We gotta make that hoop look big to him again. I think he’ll get back on track. He’s in the gym shooting. It’s 12 games in. Luckily, it’s not a 12-game season. But obviously we want to help him get on track faster than anything else.”

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Concern over Lauri Markkanen

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Concern over Lauri Markkanen

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Jason Goff, Kendall Gill, and Dave Watson react to the Bulls loss in Milwaukee and where the team is after 12 games.

1:10 - On Coby White and becoming a major scoring threat off the bench

2:30 - Should Coby start?

4:00 - On Lauri Markkanen’s inconsistent play

10:10 - Do the Bulls need more 2-man game with Lauri and Zach?

14:00 - Do we need to change our expectations for this team and the players?

20:30 - Kendall on how the cavalry isn’t coming to help the Bulls

21:45 - Is Wendell Carter the ‘future’ of the Bulls and impact on team veterans?

25:30 - On the Bulls’ evolving rotations

30:15 - On Daniel Gafford’s lack of playing time

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: 

Bulls Talk Podcast

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