John Paxson spoke to the media before Friday’s tilt against the Pacers and said that as Year 2 of the rebuild went on, he and the rest of the front office needed to see continued growth from their core, specifically the trio of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. As it so happened, a couple hours after Paxson spoke the Bulls’ young core posted their best game together, got timely and important contributions across the board and went toe-to-toe with the league’s hottest team.
The difference was a Victor Oladipo banked 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining that ultimately gave Indiana their 13th victory in their last 15 tries. But in a season that will be judged on growth and chemistry, and in a season where losses ultimately help in the long run, Friday night was just about a perfect one in Chicago.
Kris Dunn posted a career-high 17 assists and had total command of the offense, Zach LaVine added 31 points and nearly sent the game to a second overtime with a circus shot, and Lauri Markkanen finished with 29 points and nine rebounds. The Bulls’ Big 3 were at their very best, and for the first time did it all on the same night.
“I think there’s been multiple games where we kind of had it,” Dunn said after the game, “but this is a game where all three played at a high level.”
The most promising aspect of the trio’s performance was that none of it seemed forced. It helped that the Bulls were making everything, shooting 51 percent as a team against one of the best defenses in the league. But LaVine and Markkanen nearly matched each other in shots (LaVine took 21 shots to Markkanen’s 20, and both had nine 3-point attempts).
LaVine got hot early, scoring 17 first-quarter points but played only a minute in the second quarter after picking up a third foul. So Markkanen took over, scoring nine points on 4 of 6 shooting that helped the Bulls maintain a first half lead. All the while Dunn continued to distribute, racking up 11 assists through three quarters to five different players.
LaVine took five of the Bulls’ final seven attempts in the fourth quarter, including the final two 3-pointers that sent the game to overtime. Before that it was Dunn who connected on the first triple that cut the deficit to three with 26.3 seconds left.
In overtime it was Markkanen who took over, attempting five of the Bulls’ nine attempts and scoring seven of their 11 points. Dunn got his in overtime, too, finishing on a thundering dunk over Myles Turner with 1:12 to play to put the Bulls up three with 1:12 to play. That came one possession after a LaVine jumper, his only make of the extra period.
It was chemistry at its finest. Dunn finished 6 of 9 from the field and had just two turnovers in 40 minutes; he attacked when he needed to attack, and he found the Bulls’ two best scorers when they needed the ball. Markkanen and LaVine also added five assists and didn’t force too many looks.
“I think everybody had their moments when they were feeling hot and making shots,” Markkanen said. “I think we found the right guys at the right time tonight and just tried to play unselfish and make plays.”
The trio won’t combine for 74 points on 29 of 50 shooting every night, but that kind of energy and flow all three played with can become a constant. The Bulls are banking on it. Even Wendell Carter Jr. got in on the action, quietly finishing with 15 points and eight rebounds against a difficult Pacers frontcourt.
Chandler Hutchison saw the floor with those four players for the first time, signaling a sort of new chapter for a Bulls franchise looking to see what it has in their young group before another important offseason.
“We’re dangerous because we have so many weapons out there. We just have to learn how to put it all together. That’s the main thing,” LaVine said. “It’s tough, too, because chemistry doesn’t come in a day, learning how to win doesn’t come in a day.
“There’s gonna be ups and downs, we’re just trying to speed that process up because we know how good we can be.”