Hey, anyone seen the Bulls lately? Yeah, the league’s poorest shooting team averaging 87 points their last three games with just four games scoring more than 100 points all season. So who was the team that Friday scored 123 points in defeating the Charlotte Hornets, 40 points in the fourth quarter, shot 52 percent and made 17 threes, had 26 assists, double figures on fast breaks, nine steals, a game saving defensive play and enough anger and indignation to draw three technical fouls? Wait, that was the Bulls?
“It means a lot because it’s good for our team,” said Justin Holiday, back from his one game paternity leave with a team and personal season high 27 points and four of seven threes. “It’s good for us to see what it takes, what it feels like. To play together and win a game. It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of energy, competitiveness. Guys were serious about getting their jobs done. Kris Dunn, obviously, pressuring guys up there, getting steals. That’s how we have to play every night for our team to do well.”
Denzel Valentine, apparently winning the starting small forward spot in his second season start, had a season high 18 points with six assists, five rebounds and four threes. Jerian Grant had 10 points and five assists, Bobby Portis had 10 points and a pair of crucial three pointers when the Bulls trailed by nine after three quarters. Lauri Markkanen had 16 points, a team high seven rebounds and the game saving defensive play by forcing a missed layup attempt by Kemba Walker with two seconds left and the Bulls leading by one. Rookie Markkanen cleverly adhered to the “verticality” principle of good defense in surviving the contact by Walker, who had 47 points in the Bulls 123-120 win. Markkanen then made two pressure free throws to effectively clinch the game.
The Bulls broke a five-game losing streak and are 3-10 and starting a Western Conference trip in Phoenix Sunday. The Hornets are 5-9 in losing their sixth straight.
It was Dunn with a career high 22 points and the last field goal, a slashing drive with 43 seconds left for the winning basket, in his coming out as an NBA point guard. Dunn also had seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and just one turnover while making 10 of 16 shots, most elbow jump shots and drives. He also had a brilliant early second quarter sequence of back to back midcourt strip steals and layups.
“The thing that excites me most about Kris, he was 10 for 16 and two for two from three, but the seven assists and one turnover,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “That’s huge growth for Kris. He went out there and made the right play darn near every time he had the ball in his hands. He rose up with confidence when they went under (screens) on him, knocked down some huge shots for us when we were down in the fourth quarter. Defensively, he got (the team) going a little bit in the first half when he picked up full. Just a really solid performance from Kris. I thought Jerian was solid as well. It’s exactly what we need. We need that leader who has the ball in their hands the majority of the game.”
It’s still Grant starting, but Dunn showed the brilliance and promise the Bulls were hoping for in acquiring him from Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler trade.
It’s been a shaky month for Dunn since his return from a finger dislocation in preseason and missing the first four games. He’s shot under 40 percent, under 30 percent on threes and averaged as many turnovers as assists. Whenever he seemed to be given the chance to take the starting point guard job, he’d throw up a one for 11 shooting like against the Thunder Wednesday or two of nine against the Pelicans earlier this month.
“Have to read the game and be aggressive, keep my guys involved. All my life I’ve been aggressive. I need to know when to be aggressive and when to get my guys the ball. Keep playing hard and build on that. Trying to slow my game down and think before (doing). I have to keep on improving.”
This with the Bulls in their worst stretch of the season with three consecutive uncompetitive losses by an average of more than 20 points per game and trailing at times by close to 40.
But Hoiberg made a crucial lineup change that finally looks like the right team fit with Valentine at small forward. His additional ball handling and shooting threat were vital and perhaps irreplaceable as a point forward type player. With his contributions, the Bulls moved the ball and penetrated—finally—better than they had all season to start the game. Though they trailed 27-26 after one quarter, it was the best first quarter for the team since beating Orlando two weeks ago.
It was apparent from the start with rare multiple-pass efforts to score, Holiday with an early three after Grant passed to Valentine, who drove and passed to Holiday. Too often this season, the Bulls on offense have simply performed dribble handoffs and settled for contested threes, which often resulted in opponent fast breaks. Thus a routine of first quarter deficits. But this time with Valentine and Holiday going to the rim, the defense had to sink back and the Bulls held the edge in fast break points.
“It was an exciting game. I’m proud of the guys for going out there and playing with great confidence. We needed this one in a bad way to generate some confidence for our players. Everybody that stepped on the floor made a contribution and that’s what it’s all about. When you play with that type of energy and effort and swagger, this game is fun.”
But this game was more than the trite platitudes and expressions of personal feeling. It was a determined scheme of play with aggression and ball movement. The Bulls shot well, which helps. But it’s playing with that thrust and acceleration that not only produces better shots, but it keeps your team in better position to retreat and be in place on defense. Sure, the Hornets shots well, and Walker was unstoppable as the Hornets repeatedly took advantage of the way Robin Lopez plays soft on pick and rolls. But the Bulls were responding in kind, like Holiday on the right wing early crossing over Walker and driving in for a dunk.
“That’s (first quarter reticence) is something that we’ve been struggling with at times throughout this whole year,” said Holiday. “We kind of go with how we’re scoring the ball, which, unfortunately, it is what it is, but it’s not what we want. We’re trying to learn how to get out of that.”
The Bulls gave their own demonstration about how to do that against the Hornets.
Holiday added another one of those driving dunks in the second quarter, and too bad gestation takes nine months the way he came back from the birth of his child. The Bulls fell behind 45-34 in the second quarter, but then got on a 16-1 run with Dunn and Grant playing together and Valentine finding cutters and Markkanen for spot up shots. It was tied at 60 at the half. It was a slow start to the third quarter for the Bulls, who then perked up behind Dunn and Valentine. But Walker looked like he’d carry his team and a pair of his late third quarter threes gave the Hornets a 92-83 lead in a wild and wacky game with 14 ties and 14 lead changes. The Bulls ability to keep coming back was just as impressive.
Portis’ back to back threes early in the fourth was crucial after he was struggling for the second straight game. And then it was Dunn slipping inside the defense to find elbow jump shots that fit his game. Dunn is not known for his shot, but seems most comfortable and confident with that 15 footer. He gets set there and is square. He made two straight to start his run of 11 fourth quarter points and then added a three when the defense dropped under the screen as the Bulls took a 104-100 lead with 5:24 left.
Charlotte tied it on a pair of Nicolas Batum jumpers, Holiday scored for a three-point play after another Dunn steal, Walker then tied it when Dunn fouled him on a three, though just barely, and like this game, each team made big plays and shots and exchanged leads. The Bulls went to intentionally fouling Dwight Howard and gained five points in the exchange to take a 115-111 lead with 2:03 left. Walker’s tough three with 57 seconds left brought the Hornets within 119-118. Dunn then blew in on the left side for a score.
“He did great for us in that (last) minute,” Holiday said of Dunn. “Hopefully, he can continue to play that way. Not saying he has to go out there and make sure he scores all these points, but the way he played defensively, crowding guys. The way he played on offense, getting to the bucket, getting guys open looks. That pressure he puts on the defense makes it easier for everyone else. We’re getting open shots.”
Walker made another driving score with 32 seconds left to get Charlotte within one. The Bulls didn’t call timeout and couldn’t get a good shot. Lopez forced a jumper with five seconds left on the shot clock. Timeout for the Hornets with 9.8 seconds left and trailing 121-120. It was going to be a tough one for the Bulls to lose, and it looked like they would as Walker took the screen and drove. Markkanen came sprinting over from the left side, got in front of Walker, who veered a bit and missed the winning layup as he tried to avoid Markkanen and made some contact, But that’s permitted if the defender goes straight up, which Markkanen did with veteran sophistication. Then the rookie coolly made the clinching free throws.
“Lauri continues to show he’s more than just a shooter. He just continues to go out there and show that he’s going to be a special player in this league.”
In what was a special game for this Bulls team where you could see the signs of some very good things to come.