Bulls

Three Takeaways: Point-Zach LaVine rounding into form

Three Takeaways: Point-Zach LaVine rounding into form

The Bulls held on to win what will perhaps go down as their weirdest win on the 2018-19 season. In a game with 23 lead changes and 17 ties, the Bulls came out on top after a series of fortunate (or unfortunate depending on where you stand on wins and losses these days) events. With the game tied at 106 all, former Bull DJ Augustin was fouled by Kris Dunn and received two free throws. Augustin--a career 86.3 percent free throw shooter--missed both free throws to give the Bulls life late in the matchup.

A clutch putback tip-in from Robin Lopez wasn’t the final nail in the coffin for the Magic, as wing Evan Fournier hit a huge 3-point shot with just over 7 seconds left in the game. This setup Markkanen’s clutch free throw attempts at the end of the game, in which he sank two of three to seal the Bulls 15th win of the season.

Lauri Legend in the making

The number one thing Bulls fans were concerned with post-Bobby Portis/Jabari Parker trade was if the departure of the two offensive-minded forwards would allow Markkanen to flourish. So far the answer is a resounding yes.

The Finnisher finished (see what we did there?) with 25 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 38 minutes of playing time. The double double was Markkanen’ 8th in his last 10 games, and his 13th double double overall on the season.

In the month of February, Markkanen is putting up All-Star numbers. Through 7 games he is averaging 25.3 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.6 APG and shooting 47 percent from the field. But just as important as the fact that he is putting up great stats is the way he is collecting those numbers. In recent weeks, we have seen a lot more from Markkanen in terms of taking his defender off the dribble, as he possesses solid speed for a big man.

So far through 36 games played in 2018-19, Markkanen’s 3-point percentage is 38.3 percent, just over a 2 percent increase from last year. And on top of that, he is actually attempting more 3-pointers as well. So with defenses frantically trying to deny him clean 3-point looks, using a--dare I say “Mirotic-esque”--pump fake to open up a driving lanes will take Markkanen’s burgeoning offensive game to the next level. In fact, a pump fake and side-step is the exact move that led to Markkanen drawing the foul on Aaron Gordon that led to the game-winning free throws.

The moment a solid NBA player becomes a superstar is when volume meets efficiency. Markkanen’s usage rate has increased from last year and his offensive rating has increased by about 4 points as well. If Markkanen’s season goes as it did last year, we can expect to see more fireworks as the Bulls closeout 2018-19. In the ‘17-’18 season, April was Markkanen’s highest scoring month.

The steadying force

Bulls head coach Jim Boylen was yet again--and rightfully so--quick to compliment Otto Porter on his play since joining Chicago.

“He’s just a steady force. He can be a receiver or a creator. Those guys are invaluable.”

Porter racked up 17 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, a block and a steal in 38 minutes. His 17 points came on an inefficient 15 field goal attempts, but he still ended up a team-high +10 from the field. Boylen was right  to call OPJ a “steady force” because whether or not he has a great shooting night, he is willing to do all the little the things to contribute to winning basketball.

You can always count on Otto-matic Otto--he of the career 40.2 percent 3-point percentage-- to hit a couple 3-pointers, but with Chicago, he has started to explore his off the dribble game. He is shooting 33.3 percent this season on pull-up 3-pointers--down from 45.2 percent last season in Washington--but he has more than doubled his pull-up 3-point attempts as a Bull.

Porter is not going to turn into Steph Curry overnight, but even at 25 years old, he can get even better at pull-up jump shooting. This part of his game being unlocked in Chicago gives Boylen another competent  ball handler to run secondary pick-and-roll actions.

Through his five games as a Bull, Porter is averaging 2.6 APG, almost a full assist better than his season average. Yet another part of his game that seems to be evolving under Boylen. And most important is the fact Porter’s sharing ways seems to have rubbed off on the rest of the roster.

LaVine the PG?

Through 7 games in February, LaVine is averaging 5.9 APG, which would be higher than any season-long assist average of his career. And this isn’t some sort of random flash in the pan, as the 2 turnovers per game he is averaging in February are the lowest of any month this season.

If LaVine--who has always been a solid passer despite his reputation--can consistently keep the turnovers down while playmaking this much, the idea of him as the Bulls long-term answer at point guard has to be taken seriously.

The main issue with the defensive-minded Dunn being the starter at point is the fact that he cannot hit an open 3-point shot, which was on display on Friday night, as he went 0/2 from 3-point range. Juxtapose this with LaVine, who absolutely made it rain from deep.

As per usual, LaVine wasn’t a major difference maker on defense, but he did a solid job all night. He was very adept at sliding his feet to stay with Augustin and though he did give up his fair share of easy drives, he defended without fouling (1 personal foul on the night).

LaVine’s 22 PTS came on a very efficient 14 shots, and this is no doubt the type of offensive performance that Boylen and co. hope to see more of over the last 23 games.

Bulls observations: Bulls make statement in Game 1 drubbing of Magic

Bulls observations: Bulls make statement in Game 1 drubbing of Magic

The Bulls beat the absolute brakes off the Magic in Game 1 of the ’96 Eastern Conference Finals 121-83. This team has largely cruised through the playoffs to this point, but their best basketball still lies ahead. Observations:

Not last year’s Bulls

The more I watch of this Bulls team, the more obvious it becomes how ahead of their time they were. The lineup of Ron Harper, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman is so modern in its defensive versatility and devastating fastbreak ability — a pace-and-space, switch-everything death lineup before it was cool

And even with Luc Longley inserted at the center spot, every player 1-4 could switch anything defensively, make plays offensively and get out on the break, all with a more-than-solid post defender anchoring the middle. The Bulls largely shied away from doubling Shaquille O’Neal tonight with Longley in the game, and Big Luc held up admirably. At one point in the third quarter, he and O’Neal were level in scoring, and Longley graced this game with a number of thunderous dunks en route to 14 points on 7-for-9.

Moreover, this didn’t look like the 1995 Bulls, who fell to the Magic in the second round of the playoffs. They made that clear from the jump, bursting out to an 11-0 run to start the game and never letting up. Their league-best defense hadn’t looked this smothering in this entire run to this point (they swiped 12 steals tonight, ever a persistent, festering whirlwind of limbs) — from start to the absolute finish.

 

Ahmad Rashad reported just before tip that the key to the Bulls finding an advantage in this postseason’s go-around with Orlando was that they had their “edge” back. I’d say so.

Numbers that stood out

Normally, a 62-28 rebounding advantage imbues a blowout (this one was) in which the losing side misses a seismic amount of shots. But not so fast: The Magic shot 47.9% from the field and actually missed less shots than the Bulls (Orlando was 35-for-73 from the field, Chicago 53-for-96). 

The difference was the offensive glass. Behind seven offensive rebounds (21 total) from Dennis Rodman, who feasted on tip-ins all night, the Bulls as a team corralled 20 offensive boards in this one. The Magic’s leading total rebounder was Shaquille O’Neal with six, and they had just 22 defensive rebounds as a team. These aren’t the bruising Knicks anymore — who, for the record, the Bulls dominated on the glass, as well.

Crisp passing from both sides, but especially the Bulls, also leapt off the screen. Much was made throughout this one of the Bulls’ focus on improving their ball movement from that series against New York. Put simply, they did. Though Jordan led the team in scoring with a pedestrian 21 points, they had six players in double-figures and every Bull who played scored. Separate behind the back feeds from Pippen, Kukoc, and Kerr, as well as savvy touch passes from Kukoc and Rodman (off rebounds) were beautiful.

And… Drumroll, please… The Bulls slung 37 assists. Jim Boylen would be proud.

Hey look, it’s that guy!

  • Lil’ Penny!

Big Penny had a game-high 38 points and was so damn smooth throughout.

  • Horace Grant was back in town one year after being carried off the floor in Orlando when the Magic knocked out the immediate post-Jordan-return Bulls in '95. He visibly struggled with an injured elbow throughout, then left the game in the third quarter after a collision with Shaq re-aggravated it. He won’t return this series.

  • This deafeningly loud suit donned by an injured Darrell Armstrong is splendid:

 

  • Bill Walton was featured in the NBC broadcast crew for this one, slightly softening the blow of saying goodbye to Tom Dore and Johnny “Red” Kerr for the remainder of this run. It was a relatively tame day from Walton but hopefully, he had his moments. Side note: NBC interviewed the Magic’s general manager in the United Center tunnel on Grant’s injury. How times have changed. 

  • Not a guy, but these are… Something:

Game 2 Friday. Hopefully the Magic join us. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Benny the Bull releases his first podcast...sort of

8-14-benny-the-bull.png
USA TODAY

Benny the Bull releases his first podcast...sort of

Just in time for April Fool's Day, Bulls Hall of Fame mascot Benny the Bull released his first-ever tell-all podcast...sort of. 

Benny's first podcast, named "Between Two Bulls," was released as the ultimate April Fool's joke, just over an hour of he and a Benny the Bull doll sitting with a small plant between them and a Benny-themed backdrop. Here's to hoping Benny has a second episode planned!