For a rebuilding team ranked last in offensive rating, securing a 114-112 win against the best defense in the league is notable. More important than the result, however, is how it came to be.
Despite Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday combining for 31 points and 11 rebounds, this rare win wasn’t due to timely performances from the veterans. Instead, it was Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., both of whom had pivotal plays in the clutch that proved to be the difference.
The Bulls have desperately missed Lauri Markkanen
For 23 games without him, we knew this to be true. Ironically, though, that point has been emphasised since his return.
Starved of another offensive weapon to support Zach LaVine, reinserting the 7-foot offensive force into the lineup has completely changed the complexion of a typically stagnant Bulls offense.
In his first home game after an extended stint on the sidelines, Markkanen was influential, scoring 24 points (8-for-12 shooting) and emerging as the fulcrum of the offense in the closing moments.
On the possession prior to his game-winning play, Markkanen showed a glimpse of what he can be as a creator. Driving the ball from the corner into the paint, drawing the attention of three Thunder defenders with him, Markkanen playmaking off the bounce and finding an unmanned Justin Holiday waiting at the three-point line set up the then go-ahead basket.
Then, with scores tied at 112 and the Bulls without a timeout in the final 19.2 seconds of the fourth quarter, nevermore has ‘The Finnisher’ moniker been so apt. Running a two-man game on the perimeter with LaVine, a series of screens ultimately ended with Markkanen making an impressive move off the bounce, taking Paul George all the way to the rim, finishing strong with the game-winning basket.
Utilising his ability to space the floor and create his own offense, scoring is something that has typically come easy for Markkanen since entering the league. In less than 30 seconds of game play, Markkanen flashed his potential as the leader of the offense.
But it wasn’t just the closing moments, but a complete game. After connecting on four made threes en route to a 16-point first half performance, the threat of Markkanen roaming along the three-point line altered how the Thunder chose to guard him.
In an attempt to take away his shot, defenders closed out hard, daring Markkanen to dribble into a move or pass to a lesser teammate. We didn’t know it at the time, but involved in another two-man game with LaVine, George again would overcommit to a Markkanen jump shot, leaving the lane open and allowing second-year forward to finish inside, just as he did to ice the game.
As devastating as he was with the ball in hand, there’s an argument to be made that Markkanen’s mere presence on the floor provides as many good looks for others as it does for himself. Take this driving basket from Chandler Hutchison as an example. Is he able to enter the lane if he isn’t involved in strong side action with Markkanen?
Against a below-average defender like Alex Abrines, perhaps the rookie forward could take him off the bounce toward the basket. Still, it’s unlikely he receives such a clean driving lane without the attention Markkanen commands of the defense.
The defensive stop of the season
Markkanen may have sealed the victory with his offensive prowess, but his present and future frontcourt partner came up with the biggest defensive possession the Bulls have had all season.
It’s not normal to see a player who’s a few short months into his career have the gall to challenge a Russell Westbrook dunk attempt, let alone actually stop it. That’s exactly what Wendell Carter did.
Rotating into a position to defend the drive, Carter perfectly straightened his frame and vertically contested the dunk, coming up with a huge block. Failing to keep the Thunder off the glass after Carter’ stop on Westbrook, the visitors would get another look at the basket. As good as the initial contest was, coming up strong with another defensive stop in the same possession, this time on a driving Jerami Grant, was equally impressive.
Since he stepped foot in the league, Carter has showcased his ability to pick up defensive techniques multi-year veterans still haven’t learned. An example of this is his ability to contest shots at the rim. Having Markkanen return to the team has been a boon to the offense. More so, it has showcased how he and Carter can pair together for the foreseeable future.
The Spirit, The Passion
After just getting done heaping praise on Carter for having the best defensive sequence of the season, it would be remiss of me — and my brand — to exclude this defensive effort by Ryan Arcidiacono.
Hustle efforts like this have given the Bulls’ point guard depth a level of respectability it has sorely lacked in Kris Dunn’s absence.