Whether the Bulls earn wins against other bottom feeders or rack up losses to improve their positioning in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, continued progression from their core will be important over the final three weeks of the regular season.
With Otto Porter nursing a shoulder injury for the second consecutive game and Zach LaVine a late scratch with a thigh bruise, all eyes were on Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn as both attempted to break out of slumps against a porous Wizards defense.
Both players made good on their opportunity, shining in high-usage roles that helped the Bulls knock off the Wizards in overtime, 126-120. Markkanen broke out of a long shooting slump and made two critical plays in the final minute of regulation, while Dunn scored eight points in an overtime period and provided some stifling defense on All-Star Bradley Beal to secure the victory.
Not all slumps are created equal, but it was nice to see both Markkanen and Dunn play well with the Wizards defense honed entirely in on them. They attempted 45 of the Bulls’ 106 shot attempts and combined for 58 points, 19 rebounds, 18 assists and just three turnovers in 78 combined minutes.
For Markkanen, his slump from beyond the arc had been a puzzling one. Dating as far back as Jan. 6, Markkanen was making less than 34 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Even in February, when he was an Eastern Conference Player of the Month finalist, he made just just 35 percent of his triples in 10 games. In March, that percentage had dipped to a lowly 28 percent.
But he was a different player on Wednesday night. He buried his first triple in the opening minutes and didn’t slow down after that, connecting on 5 of 8 from beyond the arc; it was the most triples he had made in a game since Feb. 6 and his best percentage on seven attempts or more all season.
“When you go 5 for 8 from the 3 that helps his game,” Jim Boylen said. “Moving him around, get him coming off the baseline, we get him going downhill, turning a corner. But I think when that 3 ball starts going down for him it all kind of comes together for him. I think for him, when he rebounds the ball he plays well.”
Past the outside shooting, Markkanen had broke a nine-game stretch without scoring 20 points after doing so 10 straight times in February. He scored 32 points, his most since Feb. 23 against the Celtics, and grabbed 13 rebounds, his most since March 5 against the Pacers.
Markkanen said he continues to watch film to improve his shooting – he noticed he was fading away on some 3-pointers that caused him to come up short – and is looking for new ways to attack defenses differently to remain consistent.
“Last year I was able to shoot the ball and surprise some teams,” he said. “Not surprising anybody this year so I kind of have to figure it out how to get around different coverages and stuff like that. You play a lot of games in this league so it’s tough to be consistent but you’ve got to be mentally tough.”
Even during Markkanen’s “slump” he was averaging 15.9 points and 8.4 rebounds in March. But he’s aware of what’s being asked of him as the 21-year-old face of the Bulls rebuild and knows that a consistent effort that produces results will take him to the next level.
“My confidence is up there and I obviously have a long way to go but I was playing better in February and I was kind of thinking that I can play like that in the future consistently,” he said. “I’ve got ways to go but my confidence is definitely up there.”
In Dunn’s case, baby steps still count as progress. His 26-point, 13-assist night was his best performance in months, and it continued a trend of him playing well with LaVine out of the lineup. With the Bulls’ shooting guard in the lineup Dunn is averaging 10.3 points on 40 percent shooting with 5.9 assists. In the nine games LaVine has missed that Dunn has been active, Dunn is averaging 17.1 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.1 assists.
He’s shown consistency as the lead ball handler when LaVine is out of the lineup, but of course that won’t be very often heading into the future.
Instead, Dunn’s consistency needs to come on learning to play with the ball-dominant LaVine and excel in other areas when he isn’t constantly the initiator on offense. Shooting 3 of 7 from beyond the arc was a good start, and although his 10 of 24 from the field was ugly, he was aggressive, played downhill and opened up plenty for the Bulls offense, which shot 47 percent from the field and made 12 triples. he also played excellent defense late on Bradley Beal. The combination of Dunn and Shaq Harrison forced Beal to go 4 of 13 with 12 points after halftime.
“It’s a learning thing as we go,” Boylen said of Dunn learning to play with LaVine, Markkanen and Porter. “I don’t really have the answer for that. I think it’s a feel, playing together and obviously in those moments when they’re in the game you have to be really efficient with your shots and what you’re doing because there’s other guys out there.
“But if anything tonight was a confidence booster to hang in there and stay the course, man. Keep grinding. Believe in yourself and it’ll turn for you.”