Kris Dunn vs. Dennis Smith Jr. hasn’t yet reached the status of “Must-See TV” like Stephen Curry going against Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving, but one wonders in short order if it will be.
The future of the position was on display Friday night at the United Center, perhaps one of the only things that made matters exciting between two teams looking at securing lottery position more than the actual result.
Dunn’s potential of being a closer was on display as his wing triple pushed the Bulls ahead five in the final 2 minutes of their 108-100 win.
Smith Jr. had the better statistical scoring night with 25 points, while Dunn had a better all-around performance with 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Both are disciples of former Providence point guard God Shammgod—whose dribbling moves during his time in college and the NBA became legendary.
“Yeah. I think you could kind of say that,” Dunn said to NBCSportsChicago.com when asked about the two being the future of the position. “But Steph and Kyrie, they’re still young. They’re gonna be here for a long time. For young guards like us, we have to elevate our game every year. Stay with our strengths, staying athletic is an advantage but we have to figure it out, how to be up there with those top guards. We gotta work through the summer.”
While Smith Jr. dazzled early with quick forays to the rim, he was held scoreless in the fourth quarter.
Dunn tracked Smith better in the last 12 minutes—even though there were several meetings at the rim throughout with Dunn challenging Smith Jr. defensively.
“I know I had to put my construction boots back on,” Dunn said with a smile when asked about defending his counterpart late.
Dunn had help as the Bulls outscored the Mavericks 30-15 in the fourth, with Zach LaVine hitting a late triple and finding Lauri Markkanen for the “good night Irene” triple with 1:18 to put the Bulls up eight.
For those counting, that’s all three critical parts of the Bulls’ future being wholly unafraid to take and make the big shot. It wouldn’t have been possible, though, if not for Bobby Portis elbowing his way into the conversation about the Bulls’ future—and playing himself into Monday’s starting lineup against the Celtics.
Portis scored six of his 22 points in a quick spurt in the fourth quarter that gave the Bulls their first lead at 100-96, taking advantage of the Mavericks’ smaller lineup and slower veteran, Dirk Nowitzki.
“Bobby’s a dog, man,” LaVine said. “He’s doing the duty he has to do down in the post. He makes big plays, he’s a tough guy for our team, and he’s a glue guy. He means a lot.”
Smith Jr. doesn’t have the luxury of having young players like LaVine and Markkanen or even Portis to grow with him, as the Mavericks invested in veterans Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews in free agency the last few seasons.
Barnes led all scorers with 26, while Markkanen had his first double-double since early February with 17 points and 12 rebounds. LaVine scored 16 with six assists.
All eyes, though, seemed to be on Dunn and Smith Jr. early.
It was on full display at times during the night, a sequel to Dunn having a 32-point, nine-assist, four-steal night in Dallas in early January. Smith Jr. didn’t have an off-night then, either, but wasn’t prepared for Dunn’s aggressiveness as Dunn heard enough about the Bulls passing up Smith Jr. on draft night to take Markkanen after trading Jimmy Butler—and banking on Dunn’s development, a gamble that has paid off.
“A player like him, a player like me, we’re gonna bring it every night,” Dunn said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “We’re not gonna back down from anybody, we’re gonna compete. It’s gonna be fun to see each other’s journeys.”
Smith Jr. has a quickness and electric bounce that looks eerily similar to a young and untainted Derrick Rose. The way his drives are so violent and definitive elicits memories of Chicago’s young star before he fully bloomed in his third season.
And damn if his cupping the ball while going through tight spaces and switching to the other hand for a finish didn’t evoke memories of the kid from Englewood.
Dunn is a more polished playmaker and runner of the offense, but just as quick and a slightly better midrange shooter, although he doesn’t possess the dunk contest-worthy bounce of Smith Jr.
“That’s my guy,” Dunn said. “Sham, he coached both of us. We’re competitors. We understand each other is a good player. I like it. He’s going out there to kill me, I’m going out to kill him. There’s gonna be plenty more battles down the road. That’s the spirit you gotta have in order to be a good player in this league. Especially when we’re young. I like that competitiveness.”
Both are improving outside shooters, both shooting at 31 percent from 3 with Smith Jr. taking twice as many. Friday, though, Smith Jr. made two of three while Dunn made three of four, including the late triple to give the Bulls some breathing room.
“I thought Kris played a really good overall game,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought he found guys when he needed to. 18-7-7, that’s pretty impressive going up against Dennis Smith, who really had it going. Kris didn’t drop his head when Smith got off to such a hot start.”
Perhaps the experience of being in his second season allowed Dunn to pace himself through the night and not turn the entire evening into a one-on-one competition.
“Not at all. I knew what he was gonna do,” Dunn said. “I knew he was gonna bring it. I tried to stay within the game and let it come to me.”
The evening had more than its share of warts, reminders that coming in the two proud franchises combined for just 39 wins. The Mavericks were whistled for a technical foul for having just four players on the floor for one possession—a possession the Bulls couldn’t score on anyways.
And to make matters more tanktastic, the Bulls missed the ensuing free throw.
Aside from Nowitzki turning back the clock a bit to hit five triples—one off his season high as he scored 18 in 27 minutes—the night could’ve been quite forgettable in the race to the bottom for better lottery positioning.
But nobody told Dunn and Smith Jr., and thank goodness they didn’t.