At the 7 minute, 47 second mark of the first quarter, the Bulls’ future looked bright.
The struggling Lauri Markkanen had already thrown down two dunks, both off Tomas Satoransky feeds, and sank a 3-pointer. Zach LaVine had opened the scoring with a 3-pointer and thrown down a dunk of his own. The Bulls led by 10.
Two of those three positive developments held.
The Bulls snapped their three-game skid with a 109-89 drubbing of the out-of-sorts Pistons. And Markkanen, in a much-needed performance, posted his first 20-point game since the Oct. 23 opener with 24 points.
But LaVine didn’t score again after that first quarter stretch, finishing in single digits for the first time since scoring eight on Jan. 17 at Denver.
Given that Markkanen shot 50 percent from the field and knocked down three of four three-pointers, his breakout game is the bigger story. However, questions will continue to persist about the pairing of LaVine and Markkanen until they play well together consistently. To LaVine's credit, he didn't force shots---most of his misses came off good looks---and finished with four assists.
“Whenever he gets caught on fire or scores some easy points, it puts less pressure on our first unit,” Satoransky said of Markkanen. “He needed that personally. And we needed that too.”
Coach Jim Boylen pointed to Markkanen sprinting the floor early, something the coaching staff has been stressing to the big man.
“He’s thirsty for dunks,” Satoransky said of Markkanen. “He’s good at cutting. There were a couple moments I knew that he was going to cut, even in the fast break. He’s really aggressive. Getting those easy baskets, that’s what gives you good confidence on offense. Hopefully, he’s going to get his percentage to where it’s been for his whole career.”
Markkanen, who entered shooting just 36.2 percent and 26.8 percent from 3-point range, downplayed his struggles despite admitting to frustration after Monday’s loss to the Bucks.
“Nothing really changed. I just saw a couple go in at the beginning. That’s what it is,” Markkanen said. “The shot’s been feeling good the whole time. That’s why it’s frustrating to see it come out because you’re confident they’re going in. So it feels good to see a couple go in.
“Obviously, this is just the start. I have to keep working.”
The Bulls are a different team when Markkanen is playing at this level. He also attempted double-digit free throws for the first time since the Oct. 23 opener in Charlotte. If he hadn’t missed four of 11, his scoring night would’ve carried even more impact.
“I just tried to be aggressive, get to the rim,” Markkanen said. “I think I’ve had a lot of in and outs. Shot feels good and then hits the rim eight times and comes out. I’m glad they went in.”
The Pistons fouled Markkanen on three separate 3-point attempts. Markkanen made one and converted the free throw for a four-play, then finished a personal six-point possession when the Bulls kept possession because of a flagrant foul.
Markkanen said afterward he didn’t even realize he had a six-point possession. What’s crazy is that he scored more on that possession than LaVine did all game.
At least Satoransky and emergency starter Shaq Harrison stepped into the scoring void created by LaVine’s off night. Each scored 15 points. Harrison finished with a double-double, while Satoransky finished with 15 points and seven assists in one of his stronger performances.
“We win,” Markkanen said when asked what happens when Satoransky plays aggressively. “It does a lot. He’s a great player and he’s taking what the defense gives him. And we need him to be aggressive as well.”
The Bulls are in no position to nitpick victories. Like Satoransky, they have to take what the opponent gives them. LaVine and Markkanen have yet to each crack 20 points in the same game this season, but at least they head to the practice court Thursday to work on their chemistry following a victory.
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