There’s something different about the Bulls over the last week.
While the practices have been longer and there’s a more energetic head coach bouncing on the sideline, the biggest difference that’s affecting this team most is the player that led them to a victory Friday night.
It was Lauri Markkanen’s third game back since suffering a sprained right elbow in training camp, and after two performances that knocked rust off of the 21-year-old’s game he finally put together a performance that the Bulls hope becomes a constant.
Markkanen scored 24 points, knocked down four 3-pointers and hit the game winning shot over an outstretched Paul George and Steven Adams with 4.9 seconds remaining, ending a seven-game losing streak and giving Jim Boylen his first win as an NBA head coach.
“That big Finnish kid isn’t bad,” Boylen said after the game. “He made some great plays down the stretch.”
Markkanen’s spin move on George and finishing layup over Adams and George will be the highlight of the night, but it finished off a sequence for the 21-year-old that showed just how versatile he can be. On the Bulls’ previous possession Markkanen took a similar dribble handoff from Zach LaVine and instead of attacking the basket found an open Justin Holiday on the left wing for a 3-pointer that gave the Bulls a two-point lead with 23 seconds left.
“He’s smart. Lauri’s not one of those guys that thinks he has to take the winning shot. He’s one of those guys that feels he’s going to make the winning play, whatever that is,” Boylen said. “That’s the beauty of that dude.”
The other beauty of Markkanen was his shot taking and shot making in the first half. Like they’ll do to plenty of opponents this season, the Bulls abused the Thunder’s top-ranked defense with pick and pops using LaVine and Markkanen. LaVine had nine turnovers but also pitched in seven assists. It’s a small sample size, but the Bulls’ ability to space the floor with Markkanen has resulted in LaVine racking up 16 assists the last two games.
Markkanen hit all four triples in the first half, and the Bulls’ spacing on that end of the floor was noticeably better as they scored 70 points and shot nearly 60 percent from the field.
“Lauri spaces the floor. He shoots the ball so well, especially when he starts getting his rhythm back,” LaVine said. “He helps me a lot because I always have an outlet. I draw the double team Lauri gets to the cup. I can always spread it out to him.”
He battled foul trouble a large portion of the second half, picking up his third and fourth fouls in a six-second span just 90 seconds into the third quarter. He also banged up his elbow setting a down screen for Justin Holiday, and he received treatment on the bench while sitting for nearly 12 minutes.
But he showed no ill effects of the banged up elbow once he returned. He hit a turnaround jumper on his first possession back in the fourth quarter to pull the Bulls within five, and his steal off an errant Russell Westbrook pass led to two Bulls free throws that tied the game at 100.
Once LaVine got a little too much hero ball going Jim Boylen spaced the offense out and gave multiple options on sets rather than LaVine do it all himself. Markkanen came up big, once on the pass to Holiday and once on the final make of the game.
“First of all he cares about the team. I don’t know if it’s playing with his national team or whatever it is, but he’s such a good teammate,” Boylen said. “And he understands how to play. He has great confidence and him and I have a relationship where I think it’s one of those deals where we kind of look at each other and we know, like, it’s just there. And I’m thankful for that.”
The Bulls look different with Markkanen on the floor. While Boylen taking over as head coach, running two-and-a-half-hour practices and getting the Bulls back to the basics have been the main headlines, there’s a different swagger in the air with No. 24 on the floor. It’ll only get better when Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis return, potentially as early as tomorrow night against Boston, but the ups and downs of this season will continue to ride with Markkanen.
"It really doesn’t matter to me if I’m going to take the shot. I just want to make the right play,” he said. “We’re just trying to make the right play, and I think everyone has bought into that.”