Five Things to Watch: Bulls host Mavericks in search of third straight win

Five Things to Watch: Bulls host Mavericks in search of third straight win

Watch as the Bulls take on the Mavericks tonight on CSN+ and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

Five Things to Watch:

1. What's Jimmy Butler got in store? On paper, Butler's performance Sunday night against the Grizzlies was nothing special. In fact, in many ways it fell short of his season averages. But Jimmy G. Buckets was on his game in the fourth quarter when the Bulls needed him most, helping them to a crucial road victory in Memphis. Tonight a fast start will be key against a Mavericks team that struggles to play from behind.

2. Dirk Nowitzki is back. The Mavericks are finally getting back to full-strength, and the main contributor to that is Dirk Nowtizki. The future Hall-of-Famer is finally rounding into form after an Achilles injury kept him out of the lineup most of the year. In his last three games, Nowitzki is averaging 20.3 points on 49 percent shooting.

3. There was at least some rumblings that the Bulls might have considered going after Ames native Harrison Barnes this past offseason. Instead, Barnes wound up in Dallas a potential building block for the Mavs. And he's looked pretty solid through the season's first half. Barnes is averaging 20.7 points on 48 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds and nearly a steal per game in 36 minutes. It'll be a fun matchup watching him go against Jimmy Butler.

4. More 3-pointers on the way? It's easy to say that a 31-point outing will get you going, but maybe Doug McDermott can build on his career night against the Grizzlies. He hit 3 of 6 triples, made 10 of 11 free throws and even added six rebounds and a(nother) block. The Bulls will be able to run more against the Mavs than they were the Grizzlies, meaning more spacing for McDermott to find open shots. If he's hitting early, the Bulls are in good shape.

5. A three-game winning streak on the line. The last time the Bulls won three straight -- earlier this month -- it pushed them over .500. Now they've got a chance to reel off a third straight and again get back over .500. As poorly as the Bulls have played as a whole, the Eastern Conference is wide open at the bottom half of the playoff bracket, so these are opportunities they don't want to miss against a struggling team.

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Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen flip on starpower simultaneously for Bulls

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen flip on starpower simultaneously for Bulls

In the first quarter of the Bulls’ 117-110 victory over the Timberwolves Wednesday night, Lauri Markkanen attacked the paint four times. He scored once, got fouled twice and posted five of his eight first-quarter points from inside the 3-point line.

In the fourth quarter, Zach LaVine snapped a closer-than-needed-to-be tie game with a 27-foot 3-pointer with 1 minute, 26 seconds left. Following a Timberwolves miss, LaVine drove and drew a foul on Robert Covington to push the lead to five.

LaVine finished with 25 points. Markkanen added 21. The Bulls are now 4-2 when both players score 20 or more points in the same game.

Sometimes, basketball really can be a simple game.

Get Markkanen on the move. Let LaVine’s improved decision-making work in crunch time.

The NBA is about starpower. The Bulls touted the potential of LaVine and Markkanen to head that way before this disappointing season began.

LaVine has held up his side of the bargain more consistently than not. But Wednesday night offered the latest example of what the Bulls can look like when their franchise cornerstones produce simultaneously.

“(Defenses) can’t help because it’s going to be an automatic 3-pointer for you right there,” LaVine said, when asked what an engaged Markkanen means to him. “He played real aggressive tonight. We love that. He was able to get to the free-throw line with driving. He was taking his shots. We need that from him.”

Yes, the Bulls do.

This marked Markkanen’s first 20-point outing since Jan. 6 at Dallas, his first game since rolling his left ankle in a home loss to the Celtics. Markkanen has quietly played through the injury, which sometimes has been pointed to as one reason he has slumped again this month.

But Markkanen also has bemoaned being relegated to being a stationary, spot-up shooter. And even though 10 of his 14 attempts against the Timberwolves came from 3-point range, his six free-throw attempts represented his most since Dec. 28.

His activity and attacking early helped set the tone for a 35-point first quarter for the Bulls.

“I was involved a lot coming off ball screens,” Markkanen said. “Obviously, I can push it if I rebound the ball, which I did a little bit more than the previous games.

“I think it opens up if I get a couple looks early and I make them. They have to guard me differently and I’m going to have a drive to the basket and I have a lot more options than just if I’m spotting up in the corner.”

LaVine, who posted his 12th straight 20-point game, has been one of Markkanen’s most vocal supporters during his difficult season.

“Just that we’re with you and I’m still coming to you,” LaVine said, when asked what he has relayed to Markkanen lately. “If you need an easy one, let me know.

“He’s been dealing with a foot injury too. And that’s what we have to take into consideration. He’s doing what he can do. He’s not going to be able to have the same type of explosiveness going to the hoop. Get him some easy ones. Get him into the game.”

Markkanen said he understands his importance to team success. But he doesn’t always exhibit that awareness with aggressiveness on the court. On Thursday, Markkanen did.

LaVine noticed. After all, the Bulls went 5-3 last season in February and March when both players scored 20 or more points in the same game.

That’s 9-5 over the last five months — both players were shut down for the stretch last season — when LaVine and Markkanen do what they’re supposed to do for the Bulls.

Simple, right?

“Hopefully, we can get back to that,” LaVine said. “A guard and big combo is real lethal.”

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Bulls observations: Bulls blow lead, but grind out win against Timberwolves

Bulls observations: Bulls blow lead, but grind out win against Timberwolves

Though it wasn't the romp it appeared it would be early, the Bulls ground the Timberwolves out down the stretch, winning 117-110. Observations:

More trouble out of halves

The Bulls played their game to a tee for most of the early going. Or the Timberwolves were really bad. At times, it was difficult to tell.

Regardless, Minnesota committed 12 turnovers in the first half, off which the Bulls scored 15 points, and allowed the Bulls a 38-16 advantage on points in the paint at the break. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting (3-for-3 from deep), but none of his teammates had much juice.

Still, an, at one time, 19-point first half lead shrank to seven when Zach LaVine was whistled for a ticky tack 3-shot foul on Shabazz Napier at the second quarter buzzer. 

Towns was then forced out of the game after picking up his fourth personal (a shooting foul on LaVine) with 8:55 left in the third quarter. After LaVine’s ensuing free throws, the Bulls led 64-56, and it appeared would have a chance to reassert themselves.

The Wolves — even sans Towns — had different plans. Over approximately the next three game minutes, the visitors staged a 13-4 run to seize their first lead since the first quarter. Going into the fourth, the Bulls led, but only 81-79.

Teamwork made the dream work

The Bulls got contributions all around in this one. Luke Kornet poured in 15 and Cristiano Felicio (!) logged a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds (seven offensive) — neither offered a ton of resistance against Towns, but Felicio ran the floor hard and drew some good-natured cheers from the UC crowd with his six points early in the fourth. Chandler Hutchison played big minutes again and swiped three steals, and Coby White chipped in 12 impactful points.

It was an especially encouraging outing for Lauri Markkanen. He began assertive, notching 10 first-half points and four rebounds, while moving downhill better than he has in a long while. Then, in the fourth, he canned a handful of big shots when the Bulls needed them. He finished with 21 on 14 shots (still probably not enough, but won’t harp tonight). That consistency from the first and the second half hasn’t been there, and is a nice development.

The Bulls closed with a sequence of seldom-used lineups, heavily featuring an uber-small unit of Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, Kris Dunn (14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals), Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Boylen has tried out a couple different combinations down the stretch recently with options limited.

And of course, LaVine grabbed the reins late. Even on a night that wasn’t his finest (8-for-18 shooting), he finished with 25 points. Five of those were in the last minute-and-a-half, which pushed the Bulls over the top for good. The Bulls are now 4-2 when he and Markkanen both score over 20 points.

No answer for Towns

Another skilled, bruising big roughed up the Bulls. Even without playing much of the third quarter (he ended the night with 31 minutes), Towns finished with 40 points on 16-for-24 shooting, 16 of those points coming in the fourth quarter. Whatever he wanted, he pretty much got. 

What pushed the Wolves so close to a monumental comeback, though, was his teammates waking up. Andrew Wiggins answered an ugly three-point, 1-for-4 shooting, four-turnover first half with 22 in the second. Napier’s energy was also key to sparking their aforementioned third quarter run.

But the shooting shut off late. The Wolves entered the fourth 41.9% from deep, but hit only 2 of 13 long-balls in the fourth. The Bulls ground them down, shooting 37 free throws and outrebounding them 50-43, and ended up with a much-needed (albeit much-too-close) victory.

We’ll stay right here in Chicago for a struggling Kings squad this Friday.

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