Bulls

Lauri Markkanen stays even-keeled as his season starts to trend upward

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USA Today

Lauri Markkanen stays even-keeled as his season starts to trend upward

It might've been Lauri Markkanen's most explosive move of the season to this point. In the first half of the Bulls' road victory over the Kings on Dec. 2, the power forward faked a dribble-handoff, took a dribble and explosively dunked with authority.

Markkanen scored 20 points that night and has reached that level in four of six December games. In fact, over the last six games, Markkanen has doubled his 20-point game output from the first 20 games while shooting 52.6 percent overall and 43.5 percent from 3-point range.

"I'm staying confident and trying to finish every shot, not fall out of it," Markkanen said following Friday's morning shootaround at the Advocate Center. "I've tried to be active at both ends. Obviously, I've been getting a lot of good looks from my teammates. I'm trying to attack the rim and make my open shots. If I get to the rim early, it opens up the 3 ball later."

Markkanen is attempting 7.7 3-pointers per game this month, his highest monthly total to date. But his scoring has featured his full arsenal — dunks, drives, one-legged drag steps. Both he and coach Jim Boylen agreed he's been more on the move offensively rather than serving as a stationary shooter.

"I think that's him engaging in the game and playing harder and with more energy," Boylen said. "He's just bringing it.

"He's driven the ball more. He's also had more dunks. His rim finishes are up, percentages and attempts. That's important. It's nice when you get a couple easy ones or ones at the rim. Then, the other ones, the rim looks a little bigger."

Markkanen is as stoic and as even-keeled as they come, but he publicly admitted to frustration a couple times during his slow start. He also got tired of talking about it. He knew what he had to do.

"There are tough times for everybody," Markkanen said. "It was a little tough earlier in the year. But even then, I always said I'd keep working and try to stay positive. I thought things would fall into place."

And now that they have over a six-game stretch, he won't celebrate. He'll continue to put in the work, knowing how much he means to the fortunes of the franchise. Zach LaVine, in particular, voiced strong support for Markkanen throughout his early-season struggles.

"Just knowing that my teammates have my back, that's the most important thing," Markkanen said. "No matter how many shots I missed, I felt my teammates supported me and believed in me. That's really important. You can't lose confidence when that happens."

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Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls season

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USA Today

Jim Boylen standing firm at moment of reckoning in Bulls season

It’s no secret that the Bulls’ season hangs in the balance. At 17-30, the team is at once three games out of a playoff spot and slated ninth in the current lottery standings. 

To hear head coach Jim Boylen and co. tell it, a playoff berth remains the more desirable of those two timelines. But according to Basketball Reference, the Bulls have the third most difficult remaining strength of schedule in the East. And worse, they’ll have to face the (immediate) future without Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Daniel Gafford.

The loss of Markkanen — the most recent of that group to go down — has tipping point potential. In the Bulls’ first game without him, they mustered just 81 points at home against a swooning Sacramento Kings squad, shooting 8-for-37 from 3-point range in the process. The team’s need for secondary scoring outside of Zach LaVine glared

But, as Boylen has maintained all season, the Bulls are not going to change the way they play. They just need to play better.

“We gotta play faster, we gotta move the ball. I thought we had a couple possessions where the ball stuck. The ball can’t stick. We gotta move it, we gotta drive it,” Boylen said of the loss to the Kings before the Bulls’ Saturday night matchup with the Cavaliers in Cleveland. “I also think we missed some opportunities that we need to make.

“Our margin for error is not great. We have to make the plays we can make and make the shots we can make.”

For now, at least, the starting lineup won’t change (sorry #StartCoby crowd) — though Boylen said he’ll keep his rotation fluid. As for outside reinforcements being brought in?

“We have not talked about that. Doesn’t mean we won’t,” Boylen said when asked if the Bulls could actually pivot to ‘buying’ at the trade deadline, given their relative proximity to a playoff spot. “We’re in the middle of a really tough stretch of games, and a lot of games, so my focus has been on that.

“I love the guys we have,” he added. “And we’re gonna keep coaching and teaching the guys we have. I’ve got a good group, a coachable group.”

Absent from those adjectives was ‘interchangeable’ but that word has been ever-present in Boylen’s vocabulary through the ups and downs of this season. In his first full year at the helm, his primary goal remains clear.

“Because we’re establishing this system,” Boylen said when asked why, through thick and thin, the team’s playing style hasn’t changed, as it did last season after Boylen was hired. “Last year, we were tearing it down and then establishing it. Now we’re gonna keep establishing it.”

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

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USA TODAY

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 98-81 loss to the Kings.

1:00 - Reaction to the loss and LaVine getting double-teamed

2:50 - On Jim Boylen saying don’t expect system changes with Markkanen hurt

4:25 - Sabine’s list of things that have happened since the last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2006

5:35 - Viewer comment on LaVine and Coby

6:40 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine

8:00 - On the importance of 1st vs 3rd quarter

9:00 - Viewer comment on possible trades

11:00 - Viewer comment on seeing Bulls without Markkanen

14:30 - On Lauri Markkanen’s hip injury and missing 4-6 weeks

18:40 - Viewer comment asking if Bulls should shut down Markkanen

19:50 - Hey Matt Peck, did you see what DRose did tonight?

21:15 - Viewer comment on what to expect from Lauri when he returns

23:40 - Viewer asking the greatest moment the Outsiders have witnessed

24:55 - On NBA naming the All-Star starters

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below: