There was plenty of significance to the Bulls impressive 126-116 victory over the Boston Celtics Saturday in the United Center.
There was the obvious retribution for the 133-77 humiliation back in December just after Jim Boylen took over as coach that led to the Bulls being an object of ridicule around the NBA. “We didn’t need any motivation to play these guys,” said Lauri Markkanen. There was the season first three-game winning streak, a victory over a team considered a title contender, a 37-23 team that was rested with the Bulls flying in from Orlando early in the morning for the second of the back to back. This despite the loss of Otto Porter Jr. to a leg strain in the first quarter, Porter scoreless in 14 minutes. “We’re not somebody you are just going to come here and step over,” insisted Zach LaVine. “We might be a rebuilding team or a team that is up and coming, but you are not just going to have an easy win against us. What happened last time on this court was unacceptable for us and we had to make stand.”
So there was considerable importance in the win, though perhaps nothing to match the debut of Attack & Finnish.
They might just need one of those nicknames. Zach-L and L-Mark? C’mon, this may have been the beginning.
LaVine attacked; and he did so for a career high 42 points, making five three pointers and scoring 11 fourth quarter points when the Celtics and Kyrie Irving with 37 points kept coming. And when the Celtics smothered him, he also did it with a drive and kick out to Markkanen for a three after the Celtics closed within 94-86 early in the fourth quarter. Then he took over with a drive while wearing Jaylen Brown like a winter coat for a short jumper and a three-point play for a 103-89 lead with 8:42 left. And finally one of those perfect dunk contest 50 power dunks when he ripped off his Zennis and suit and flew down the lane past Horford, Jayson Tatum and Brown for an uncontested dunk so quickly none of the three even was able to react. That made it 107-91 Bulls with 7:05 left. “The team is starting to gel,” said LaVine. “We look like we are having fun out there. I feel right now we are in a good rhythm, so keep building that chemistry. I was locked in.”
And Markkanen, the Finnish native, was a finisher again with a career high 35 points to go along with 15 rebounds, his sixth game of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in the last seven. Markkanen, the elusive seven footer, had 13 fourth quarter points and three crucial late scores, first a physical 18-foot fadeaway with Al Horford in his face to make it 113-98 with 4:13 left, then a three pointer with 3:23 left with Marcus Smart imitating and octopus and bumping him relentlessly. And then after Boston had one last gasp to get within 10 with 2:21 left, Markanen came sprinting in past Horford, Irving and Marcus Morris to tip in a LaVine missed three for enough separation so the Bulls weren’t going to blow that 25-point third quarter lead. “We’ve got a good group of guys and we’re playing unselfish basketball and having fun with it,” said Markkanen. “We’re demanding good effort from each other, and you can tell we’ve been playing like that. Zach was feeling it, so we gave him the ball and let him work. Our confidence is high; we’ve come together.”
The Bulls raised their record to 16-44, so ABC and ESPN are not changing the TV schedule of games quite yet.
But the first stage of building that rockets to playoff success is elite talent, especially in pairs. Perhaps they are starting to ignite.
The Bulls just might have their two stars. The Splash Brothers didn’t earn that nickname until a few seasons together; perhaps this is when you look in someone’s eyes and suddenly realize that this could be the start of something big.
“Once they got rolling there was no stopping them.”
LaVine and Markkanen Saturday achieved one of those statistical anecdotes becoming the first Bulls teammates to score at least 35 points in a game since — you know what’s coming — Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1996.
No one is going there quite yet, but this also isn’t just happenstance or an oddity.
LaVine has been among the league’s leading scorers all season, averaging close to 30 the first few weeks when the Bulls were exhausting the limit of G-league subs with multiple injuries and now still averaging 23.1 per game. LaVine had a 40-point game earlier, though in double overtime. But LaVine also is developing a vital all-around game, among a very few players in the NBA averaging 23.1 points and at least five assists and five rebounds this month along with shooting 50 percent on threes.
Markkanen has been mostly overlooked because he simply was not around to look at. He sustained a serious elbow injury in training camp and did not return until December. He’s since admitted he wasn’t ready, but wanted to play. So he clearly was cautious, protecting his right arm, which is the more important between his two. He’s OK now. “What I have been focusing on is rebounding, playing defense and finishing off the possessions,” said Markkanen. “We are a pretty good basketball team when we get stops and get out and run.”
For the last month, Markkanan has been one of the most productive all around players in the NBA, averaging 23.8 points and 12.8 rebounds the last 12 games and in eight February games 26.5 points and 12.5 rebounds with games of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in seven of the last 11. He’d have seven straight 20/10 games if the NBA didn’t adjust a statistic to deny him a rebound against Memphis last week. He’s scored at least 30 points in half the games this month.
And now Zach’s attacking with a Finnisher, averaging almost 50 points per game this month combined.
With the addition of Porter, whose injury doesn’t seem serious, it could be, dare we whisper and start looking for the capital letters, a three?
“He can shoot, he’s seven foot, he can roll, he’s extremely athletic,” said LaVine about his brother in points. “So you can throw it up high to him, he can get the rebound and push in transition. His game is going to continue to grow and I am going to continue to try to grow my game with him. Earlier in the season Lauri was hurt. So we were not able to build that coming off last year. We didn’t get to play a lot together. I feel now we are starting to get into that mode, figuring each other’s games out and (being) two guys you can count on day in and day out, count on those guys to get you a basket.
“I feel like what you see the now,” said LaVine, “we are starting to trend to that next level of a team where you want to go. Playoffs, championships, you need to start and trend toward that way.”
Though it didn’t look that way to start as the Celtics, who were desperate for a win coming off a close loss in Milwaukee, started 7-0, sending the Bulls into a timeout less than two minutes into the game. In that devastating December disaster, the Celtics scored the first 17 points of the game and Boylen benched all five starters, did so again in the third quarter and faced something of a revolt the next day at practice coming off the back to back when teams usually don’t practice. The Bulls are not practicing Sunday.
“It was kind of scary because of similar situations,” said Markkanen. “Both were second of back-to-backs and both were after game-winning plays (Bulls beating the Thunder then). So it was a little bit on my mind.”
“I think after the first timeout everyone settled in,” added Ryan Arcidiacono, who again closed the game in place of Kris Dunn.”We settled in and took it to them in that second (quarter).”
That was after the Bulls got themselves straightened out with LaVine scoring a dozen first quarter points and Robin Lopez adding seven. It was another understated and effective offensive game for Lopez, whose jump hook in the lane has quietly come one of the more effective shots in the game. It was Lopez’ career best fifth consecutive game scoring at least 17 points. He is averaging 15.4 points and shooting 67 percent in February with a stabilizing physical presence, if not a neater hair style.
So the Bulls trailed just 33-28 after the first quarter and then stunned the Celtics into a quick timeout with a 10-0 run to start the second quarter and 18-3 behind the Bulls reserves. The Celtics have been a mystery underachiever this season. The consensus has been they have too many good players with the returns of Gordon Hayward and Irving from injuries. So the conventional wisdom is their bench is loaded with starters. But particularly Arcidiacono, Wayne Selden and Shaquille Harrison, the latter with a wild plus-26 in just 19 minutes and starting the second half for the injured Porter, held off the more celebrated Boston militia.
“Our bench started to bring energy and effort,” said Arcidiacono. “We were making plays on the defensive end. I think they only got (18) in the second. We got some stops and were able to knock down some shots. We were being physical with them and that created transition opportunities (22 fast break points), knocked down some open looks, too.”
The 126 points was the Bulls high for the season, but no rarity lately with the Bulls averaging close to 120 points per game this month with a varied offensive of multiple ball handler and opportunity play with defensive pressure.
The Bulls led 64-51 at halftime, but we’d seen this start of the second half show before.
“Third quarter usually kill us, they usually take the game over,” said LaVine. “I think we did that.”
The murmur going through the United Center crowd was of who were those guys. With Markkanen, LaVine and Lopez scoring in eight straight possessions to start the third quarter, the Bulls took an 82-60 lead on a LaVine pull up three in transition after he scored on a reverse with multiple Celtics finding air he was moving to quickly. The Bulls pushed their lead out to 87-62 with 6:25 left in the third on a Markkanen three, and now the Celtics were serious. They got a heck of a run from Brown, 10-0 almost by himself, and Boston was within 94-81 after three. When it was 94-86 early in the fourth quarter, the story was at least the Bulls were competitive and made it interesting. And, hey, anyone seen if Zion played?
Just tell ’em we’ll have more of these games!
Markkanen and LaVine would make sure it was much more than that, the Celtics defenders giving the Bulls all the bumps and bodies they could and Zach on the Attack and Lauri with the Finnish, making shot after shot and adding to Boston’s deficit.
“Once they got rolling,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, “there was no stopping them.”
Haven’t heard that one much, eh?
Just your normal 66-point turnaround between games.
Markkanen’s stall is about four to the left of LaVine’s along the same wall in the Bulls locker room. LaVine generally is last to shower, so he was just starting to dress as Markkanen was doing one last interview for Bulls TV. LaVine overheard as Markkanen was being asked about the duo combining for 77 points.
“Just tell them,” yelled LaVine, “we’ll have more of those games.”
Maybe it’s just the start.