Even though the Bulls lost in overtime to Indiana Friday night, the 24-and-under starting lineup of Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Chandler Hutchison, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn turned out to be a big success......at least on the offensive end.
LaVine scored 31 points, Markkanen 27, Dunn 16 and a career-high 17 assists, and Carter Jr. 15 points and eight rebounds. Hutchison only scored four points, but he fit in well with the starting group with his athleticism and defensive skill.
Head coach Jim Boylen decided to let his team play at a faster tempo, resulting in higher quality shots that led to 52 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from the three-point line. Now the challenge is to continue building chemistry within the starting group, while getting more consistent production from the second unit with the expected return of Bobby Portis from a sprained ankle Sunday afternoon against Brooklyn.
The Nets continue to be one of the NBA’s most surprising teams, currently in seventh place in the East with a 19-21 record. Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson has done a tremendous job of getting the most out of a modestly talented roster.
The Nets’ best player, Caris LeVert, is currently rehabbing from a frightening ankle injury, while fourth year guard D’Angelo Russell is starting to look like the player everyone expected when he was drafted second overall by the Lakers in 2015.
Russell is averaging 18.2 points and 6.4 assists running the offense for Atkinson, while the Nets are also getting contributions up and down the line from the likes of Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Bulls’ cast-off Spencer Dinwiddie, who’s in the running for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
Dinwiddie scored 27 points in Brooklyn’s 96-93 win at the United Center two-and-a-half weeks ago, obviously looking to send a message to the team that let him go early in the 2016-17 season. Even though Atkinson continues to bring Dinwiddie off the bench, he’s emerged as the most dangerous scorer in a share-the-wealth offense.
Allen has also been a pleasant surprise this season, emerging as one of the league’s top shot blockers while also averaging 11.6 points and 8.3 rebounds. He was a major factor in that Brooklyn win over the Bulls with 16 points and 12 boards.
The Nets’ unexpected success could make them a more attractive option to the front-loaded 2019 free agency class, especially since Brooklyn should be able to carve out enough cap room to offer two max contracts. There’s been a lot of speculation about Kevin Durant possibly being interested in coming to New York, but it’s all about the Knicks right now.
Brooklyn could offer Durant the option of bringing the star of his choosing along with him in free agency, which would immediately transform the Nets into an Eastern Conference contender.
So, keep an eye on the Nets as a darkhorse contender in the big free agent chase of 2019, but as for Sunday, it should be another close game between these two young teams. Here’s what the Bulls will have to do to snap their three-game losing streak.
1. Keep the offense rolling — With a young, athletic starting lineup, the Bulls should be ideally suited to run an up-tempo offense. Kris Dunn is quickly becoming a team leader with his toughness on both ends of the court and willingness to sacrifice his offensive game to set up the team’s top scorers. Dunn played one of his best games in a Bulls uniform against Indiana. Now, it’s about stringing those types of performances together over the final 43 games of the season.
2. Welcome back, Bobby — Portis should provide the second unit with the reliable scorer its been lacking since he went out with the ankle injury. Portis’ ability to play inside or outside should give the reserve group a go-to option late in the shot clock either in pick and roll or drive-and-kick actions.
3. Match Brooklyn's intensity — Under the direction of Atkinson, the Nets have become a team no one likes to face because of the way they battle for 48 minutes. The Bulls have been prone to long stretches of offensive futility, including a few scoreless droughts in the overtime loss to Indiana on Friday after establishing an early 15 point lead.
The Nets won’t pack it in, no matter what the score, so the Bulls have to keep their focus and execute on both ends for the entire game.
Don’t forget, it’s a Sunday matinee at the United Center. The one and only Stacey King will join Kendall Gill, Kelly Crull and me on both the pregame and postgame shows to provide his expert analysis. Bulls Pregame Live starts at 2 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago, with the play-by-play call to follow at 2:30 p.m. with Stacey and Neil Funk.
And, we remind you to stay tuned after the final buzzer for Boylen’s media session and player reaction on Bulls Postgame Live.
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