Bulls

Zach LaVine's and Lauri Markkanen's best combined games last season

Zach LaVine's and Lauri Markkanen's best combined games last season

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen only played 1,100 minutes together over 41 games last season, but they made them count. Here are their five most impressive games as a duo.

5. Jan. 4, 2019: Pacers 119, Bulls 116 (OT)

LaVine: 31 points (12-21 FG, 5-9 3FG), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 35 minutes
Markkanen: 27 points (11-20 FG, 4-9 3FG), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 42 minutes

Combined: 58 points (23-41 FG, 9-18 3FG), 14 rebounds, 5 assists

We begin with the only loss on this list. LaVine and Markkanen scored 18 of the Bulls' first 20 points and the former finished with 17 in the opening period. LaVine went scoreless on 0 of 3 shooting in the second and third quarters but turned it back on in the fourth, scoring eight points in the final minute, including a 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.

Markkanen scored 14 of his points in those second and third quarters to keep the Bulls close, but he really turned it on in overtime. Markkanen scored back-to-back buckets on assists from Kris Dunn (who had 17 of them in the game) to give the Bulls a 109-107 lead in the extra period. Markkanen then hit a 3-pointer with 9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 116-116. Victor Oladipo's 3-pointer off the glass with 0.3 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner, but only after officials overturned LaVine's 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer that would have sent it to overtime.

4. Dec. 7, 2018: Bulls 114, Thunder 112

LaVine: 25 points (10-18 FG, 2-5 3FG), 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 36 minutes
Markkanen: 24 points (8-12 FG, 4-8 3FG), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 28 minutes

Combined: 49 points, (18-30 FG, 6-13 3FG), 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 5 steals

Lauri Markkanen had looked disappointing in his first two games back from injury to begin the year. He had made just 12 of 38 shots (31.6%) and a date against the league’s top-ranked defense suggested it wouldn’t get better.

Instead, Markkanen put together what wound up being his most efficient game of the season. He shot 8 of 12 (his best field goal percentage of the year) and was a perfect 4 of 4 in the paint. Two of those paint shots were an impressive drive past Paul George for a thunderous dunk, and the other was a spinning drive-and-layup over George and Steven Adams with 8 seconds left to give the Bulls a two-point lead.

LaVine wasn’t bad, either. He was George’s assignment much of the evening but managed to put together a solid line that included nine critical fourth-quarter points to erase a seven-point deficit.

It was the Bulls’ most impressive victory to date and marked the first time both players had topped 24 points in a game. Call this one the first sign of something special brewing between these two young guns.

3. Feb. 8, 2019: Bulls 125, Nets 106

LaVine: 26 points (10-17 FG), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 37 minutes
Markkanen: 31 points (11-18 FG, 3-7 3FG), 18 rebounds, 2 blocks, 38 minutes

Combined: 57 points (21-35 FG, 5-9 3FG), 21 rebounds, 5 assists

LaVine’s numbers don’t jump off the page, and this was during Markkanen’s best stretch of the season, but this one was memorable because of how seamless the duo worked with Otto Porter in his Bulls debut. Porter had been acquired two days earlier, and there were tempered expectations about how quickly he would acclimate to a 12-42 team.

Well, Porter wound up opening plenty for the Bulls offense. The Bulls scored 125 points on 62.4% effective shooting and had an offensive rating of 121.9. LaVine and Markkanen both lived inside, with 14 of their 21 combined field goals coming in the paint.

LaVine had 17 in the first half and Markkanen took over after halftime, scoring 21 of his 31 as the Bulls coasted to their second largest victory of the year. Markkanen also pulled down 18 rebounds, making him one of nine players this past season to log a 30-18 game.

2. Mar. 1, 2019: Bulls 168, Hawks 161 (4OT)

LaVine: 47 points (17-35 FG, 6-14 3FG), 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 56 minutes
Markkanen: 31 points (9-18 FG, 3-6 3FG, 10-12 FT), 17 rebounds, 54 minutes

Combined: 78 points (26-53 FG, 9-20 3FG, 17-23 FT), 26 rebounds, 11 assists

The raw numbers are certainly magnified because the two combined for 110 minutes. But looking past that inflation, LaVine and Markkanen both had monster nights in the most entertaining victory of the year.

Just watch the highlights. It was that freaking good.

1. Feb. 23, 2019: Bulls 126, Celtics 116

LaVine: 42 points (17-29 FG, 5-11 3FG), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 39 minutes
Markkanen: 35 points (12-20 FG, 3-7 3FG, 8-9 FT), 15 rebounds, 37 minutes

Combined: 77 points (29-49 FG, 8-18 3FG, 11-12 FT), 21 rebounds, 6 assists

This one was easy. All LaVine and Markkanen did in the second game out of the All-Star break was each set career-highs in points, obliterate the No. 4 defense in the NBA that had just limited the Bucks to 98 points, and do so on the second half of a road-home back-to-back (they played in Orlando the previous night).

And the fact that it exacted some demons from 77 days earlier, when the Celtics handed the Bulls their worst home loss in franchise history, made it even more special. It prompted Jim Boylen to say after the game that “maybe it’s starting to sink in” for the young group.

There were two sequences that really stuck out from this memorable night. After the second unit had extended the Bulls’ lead to eight in the second quarter, LaVine and Markkanen went on a run, scoring 34 of the Bulls’ next 41 points spanning into the third quarter. They went 13 of 17 from the field and pushed the lead to 87-62.

After the Celtics cut the lead down to 94-86 early in the fourth quarter, the duo was back at it. They scored 15 straight points for the Bulls and wound up scoring 22 of 24 points that pushed the lead back out to 12 with 2 minutes remaining. LaVine capped off his night with two free throws in garbage time to give him his 41st and 42nd point to set a career-high.

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NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

NBA G League continues to offer fascinating storylines

You never know what you might see on a given night in the G League.

Wednesday’s game at the Sears Centre offered a match-up of 7-foot-2 Bol Bol in his Windy City Bulls home debut against one time hot prospect, 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

In case you’re not familiar with Thabeet, he was the second overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2009 NBA Draft after capturing the attentions of scouts and executives with his play in the high profile program at Connecticut. Thabeet was viewed as a can’t miss prospect whose size and athleticism would translate into making him a defensive force at the NBA level.

Problem is, Thabeet did miss. Questions about his low motor and work ethic surfaced and he struggled to get consistent playing time in Memphis. Stops in Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City would follow, and Thabeet found himself out of the league in 2014. He played a total of 224 NBA games, averaging 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.

The native of Tanzania bounced around the G League and played in Japan for a time before returning to the U.S. looking for one more chance at the NBA. Thabeet invited teams to watch him work out last summer, but with little interest, he wound up back in the G League with Fort Wayne for the 2019-20 season.

At 32 years old, Thabeet is still an impressive looking athlete, and in Wednesday’s game against Windy City, he flashed at times with 4 blocked shots and a powerful baseline drive and dunk. But he also labored to change ends of the court, and put up a modest stat line of 6 points, 2 rebounds and 4 blocks in 18 minutes. Down the stretch, the Mad Ants decided they were better off with Travin Thibodeaux at center in a close game.

With NBA teams now looking for mobile centers with 3-point shooting range, it’s hard to imagine Thabeet getting another chance to make it to the league.

Meanwhile, Windy City unveiled it’s newest addition Bol Bol, a two-way player for the Denver Nuggets who needed a team to continue his development since the Nuggets don’t have their own G-League affiliate.

Bol only played nine games in his lone collegiate season at Oregon before suffering a foot injury that dropped his draft stock. He averaged 21 points and almost 10 rebounds a game at Oregon, showing an uncanny long range shooting touch for a 7-footer. Matter of fact, some talent evaluators viewed him as the best shooter available in the 2019 NBA Draft. But because of concerns about the foot injury and his slender build, Bol fell to the the second round, eventually selected 44th overall by Miami, then traded to Denver on draft night.

With the Nuggets featuring one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, there wouldn’t be any developmental minutes for Bol, so he was assigned to Windy City, a team that had a need for another big man.

Bol was impressive in his 20 minutes of playing time on Wednesday, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Right now, Bol is on a minutes restriction to protect him from further injury, but you can see the potential is there for him to be a contributor at the NBA level in time.

Bol has a feathery soft shooting touch, and will be comfortable spotting up at the 3-point line in drive and kick offenses and as a weak side option on pick and roll plays. He also showed more aggressiveness than I expected in attacking the offensive glass, following up his own initial miss for rebound baskets on a few occasions against Fort Wayne.

Windy City general manager Josh Kreibich has put together a very competitive roster that features another Nuggets’ two-way player, P.J. Hairston, Bulls’ two-way players Max Strus and Adam Mokoka, and former Loyola University star Milton Doyle.

The Bulls’ G League affiliate is off to a 4-1 start under first year coach Damian Cotter with hopes of making a second straight playoff appearance. Still, player development is priority number one in the G League, which means every player on the roster will get the opportunity to showcase their skills during the course of the season.

Bol’s NBA rights belong to Denver, but the fans at Sears Centre on Wednesday were thoroughly entertained watching the son of former NBA center Manute Bol show off a unique game that will almost certainly land him a spot in an NBA team’s rotation before long.

Windy City’s first two homes games brought former No. 4 overall draft pick Dragan Bender and Thabeet to Sears Centre, and on Nov. 29, 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall will be in Hoffman Estates with the Maine Red Claws. If you want to take a break from your Black Friday shopping to watch the Bol-Tacko duel, it’s a 5 p.m. tip-off.

After all, you never know what you might see at a G League game.

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Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Just over midway through the third quarter Wednesday night, Kris Dunn cleanly picked Derrick Rose’s pocket for a steal.

“I love getting steals. That’s been my game since high school. That’s what I do. I take pride in that,” Dunn said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I think my teammates know, the coaches know, the other teams know defense is what I do. And I try to inspire that in others.”

With 17 Pistons’ turnovers, the Bulls have now forced 15 or more turnovers in all 15 games this season.

The last time they did this — in 1980 — nobody on the current roster was born. Jim Boylen was in high school in Grand Rapids, Mich. No NBA team has opened a season in similar fashion since the 76ers did in 2004, per Elias Sports Bureau.

The Bulls lead the NBA in overall steals and rank second behind Friday’s opponent, the Heat, in steals per game. Dunn ranks third behind league leader Jimmy Butler, in town Friday, and Ben Simmons with 2.13 steals per game.

The Bulls also lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 18.8 and points off turnovers.

“I think our defense is built to force turnovers, the system that we run,” Dunn said. “We’re blitzing guys, trying to get the ball out of their hands. You have to make them make a read. Our defense is built so that after we blitz, we have a triangle (of defenders) behind. If they make a mistake in the read, it often leads to a turnover. We have a lot of good defenders on this team who can create turnovers.”

Shaq Harrison’s emergency starter status now that both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are on the shelf aids in this department. He led the NBA in steals-per-minute last season and posted three versus the Pistons. Hutchison is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Heat.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harrison said of getting steals. “Every coach I’ve played for has been a defensive-minded coach and wants me to get into people. It’s been embedded into my mind to get steals and deflections and pick guys up to play hard 100 percent of the time.

“I think defense and that mentality is 90 percent toughness and heart and then 10 percent skill. Anybody can do it at this level if you truly put your mind to it.”

Despite their penchant for steals and forcing turnovers, the Bulls rank 14th in defensive rating. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff, although it’s trending upward over the last five games. And it’s reflective of their poor defensive rebounding, occasionally poor defensive transition and inability to limit dribble penetration.

In detailing his defensive philosophy, coach Jim Boylen cited those three areas as need for improvement. That’s borne out in the Bulls allowing too many shots at the rim. What’s wild is they lead the league in offensive attempts within 5 feet but also allow the second-most in the league.

“We do not teach to steal the ball. I’m not a big out-of-position-to-steal-the-ball guy,” Boylen said. “What we have coached hard — and I guess well at times — is hand position, body position and doing your work early. I think that has put us in position sometimes to knock some balls loose or pick a couple off. But I’m not big on getting out of position to try to get a steal. It’s not who I am. It’s not who we want to be.”

Dunn said he sees “no downside” to the Bulls’ defensive’ scheme as long as it’s played with energy and communication. The Bulls have had trouble making quick and proper rotations if they don’t force a turnover, although that area too has improved over the last eight games.

The Bulls rank ninth in defensive rating over their last eight games.

“I give our guys credit,” Boylen said. “They’ve really bought into what our defense looks like now. Early, we struggled to get to the corner, to adjust and shift. I think there’s a familiarity now. There’s a learning curve in every defensive situation. I also think there’s defensive chemistry. And I think we can still grow.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job of sticking to what we believe in. We’ve coached basically the same thing since Day One. I feel we have a foundation. We need to be more consistent and play better. But we’re coaching to a system.”

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