With all the talk about Zach LaVine, Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter Jr. being foundation pieces for the next Bulls’ playoff team, you really couldn’t blame Kris Dunn for feeling a little left out.
After all, the 6 foot 4 point guard was an All-American at Providence and the fifth player selected in the 2016 draft. No one’s questioning his superior defensive skills, but his outside shooting and availability are still concerns as the Bulls’ front office plans for the future. Dunn only played in 52 games last season because of injuries, and he’s already missed 26 games this season because of a sprained knee. His career shooting averages are 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line.
Still, Dunn showed Saturday night in San Antonio why he still could be the Bulls’ starting point guard for many years to come. He scored a team-high 24 points, including the two baskets that sealed the Bulls’ come-from-behind win. Paired with Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt because of LaVine’s ankle injury, Dunn played much more aggressively on the offensive end, taking advantage of favorable match-ups to make 11-of-18 shots from the field.
Now, the front office and coaching staff is waiting to see if he can post those numbers on a more consistent basis while also developing chemistry with LaVine as the Bulls’ starting backcourt. Having Dunn step forward as the clear-cut answer at point guard would definitely simplify some of the Bulls’ roster decisions for next summer and beyond.
Dunn will face a major challenge Monday night against former league MVP Russell Westbrook and a highly motivated Oklahoma City Thunder squad. The Bulls snapped OKC’s four-game winning streak back on Dec. 7 in Jim Boylen’s first home game as head coach, 114-112.
Westbrook came on strong in the second half after an indifferent start to post a triple double with 24 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists, but he also turned the ball over 10 times. Paul George missed a wide open three in the closing seconds that would have won it for the Thunder, who are currently battling for one of the top seeds in the closely packed Western Conference.
Bottom line, the Bulls will have zero chance of catching the Thunder looking ahead to their next game. Physical center Steven Adams scored OKC’s first 12 points in the earlier meeting and you can expect Thunder coach Billy Donovan will go to his match-up with Carter early and often, especially given the rookie’s persistent foul problems.
The Bulls will need another big offensive game from Dunn and a return to form from Justin Holiday, who shot 1-of-12 from the field and 1-of-10 from the three-point line Saturday in San Antonio. Holiday scored 20 points against the Thunder earlier this month, making 4-of-6 tries from beyond the arc.
Look for Robin Lopez to get expanded playing time against the mountainous Adams and for Markkanen to take advantage of isolation match-ups against OKC’s undersized power forward Jerami Grant. Markkanen showed off a Dirk Nowitzki-esque step-back jumper agains the Spurs and appears to be finding his rhythm on offense after missing 2 months because of a sprained right elbow.
Boylen has talked about wanting to play at a slower tempo on the road to force opposing teams to defend for all 24 seconds on the shot clock, and of course, limiting possession for the explosive Westbrook is always a solid strategy. Here are a few other keys for keeping this game close.
1. Limit turnovers - The Bulls did a great job in this area on Saturday, only turning it over nine times against the Spurs. Westbrook and George love to play the passing lanes for steals and breakaway dunks which can be back-breakers for a young team playing in a loud arena like Oklahoma City’s.
2. Happy Holiday - Holiday was able to extend his franchise record three point streak to 41 games with his only field goal on Saturday, but the Bulls will need him to heat up from long range to hang with a powerful offensive team like OKC. Dunn’s ability to penetrate and draw help defenders should create some open looks for Holiday, Markkanen and Bobby Portis.
3. Keep Adams from dominating inside - Easier said than done with a player as physically imposing as the New Zealand native, but if the Bulls can win the rebound battle they should be able to stay in the game. Rebounding has been a key stat in just about every one of the Bulls’ seven victories, and it will be a point of emphasis again Monday night.
We invite you to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and me for Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Then as soon as the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for reaction and analysis on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by the always-entertaining Bulls Outsiders.
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