Bulls observations: Lauri Markkanen rebounds, reserves rally in finale win

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Rob Schaefer
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Bulls observations: Markkanen rebounds, reserves rally in win originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Bulls wrapped their four-game preseason slate with surprisingly scrappy 105-103 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder that was one-sided (in the wrong direction) in the minutes that mattered. Here’s what stood out:

Lauri Markkanen gets back on track

You couldn’t have scripted a better start for Lauri Markkanen. After tracking down a loose ball offensive rebound following the Bulls’ first possession, he opened scoring off a nice pick-and-pop 3-pointer fed by Coby White. He went on to notch eight points (3-for-5 FG, 2-for-4 3P), four rebounds and an assist in his first eight minutes of action before checking out.

Then, he came back in the second quarter for a little more run at center in the three-wing lineup (containing Patrick Williams, Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison) that Billy Donovan has frequented. He hit another 3 to open the second, and flashed a dose of the old Markkanen with a coast-to-coast lay-in that nearly knocked Mike Muscala into the empty seats behind the basket. Out of the half, he burrowed to the rim and banked another tough lay-in home, followed by a high-low alley-oop with Wendell Carter Jr. a few possessions later. He also blocked a shot in that third quarter.

Markkanen finished the night with 22 points (9-for-17 shooting, 4-for-10 from 3) with five rebounds and an assist and block apiece, a much-needed injection into a moribund preseason statline thus far. He was 5-for-25 from the field and 2-for-14 from 3 in the previous two games entering play. Though an encouraging performance, that he tied with White for a team-low -19 plus-minus showed what kind of night it was for the Bulls in quarters one through three.

"Offensively had it going," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said of Markkanen. "Lauri was one that kind of kept us in there offensively with the way he shot the ball."

RELATED: Lauri Markkanen digs expanded offensive role: ‘Night and day from last year’

Wendell Carter Jr.’s 3-point misadventures continue

Tie a bow on Wendell Carter Jr.’s preseason. After an 0-for-4 3-point shooting performance in this one, he ends the four-game slate 1-for-16 from long range, with many of those looks being fairly open. He made just 31.4 percent (11-for-35) of his field goals, overall.

We’ll say it until we’re blue in the face, and it applies to trends outside of Carter: A preseason slump isn’t the end of the world. But without a body of 3-point shooting work at the NBA level to fall back on, it’s certainly concerning as it pertains to the full expansion of Carter’s offensive game. 

Friday night, at least, he flashed the playmaking ability Donovan has pledged to unlock, slinging six assists, and found a mini-groove around the basket, shooting 4-for-5 from 2-point range. Almost half of his field goal attempts were 3s this preseason. Even as Donovan continues to encourage him to step out, that rate won’t translate to the regular season.

Overall, a step back

After three games of trackable, incremental progress on both ends, the Bulls posted subpar group performances on both ends against a bad Thunder team in this one. 

Despite Markkanen finding his flow, the offense stagnated at times throughout the first three quarters. They entered the fourth shooting below 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3, which, again, weren't falling en masse. More concerning was the team's ball and player movement appearing to fizzle. The Thunder led 90-71 through three quarters.

That's right: The Bulls allowed -- again -- a really bad Thunder team to post 90 points through three quarters against them, racking up 36 points in the paint and shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 46.4 percent from deep along the way. Their connectedness waxed and waned.

"As a coach, it’s hard to control the ball going in and out of the basket. And I think it’s hard as a player to control that," Donovan said, later calling out short closeouts as an area of glaring defensive deficiency. "The challenge for us is the consistency part. And we just were not consistent tonight to how we need to play, on both ends of the floor."

RELATED: Bulls fail to get defensive in final preseason tuneup against Thunder

Of course, a scrappy unit of deep reserves then executed the comeback of the preseason, flipping a 19-point deficit into a one-point win with a 34-13 period. Simi Shittu shined, notching 13 points and six rebounds in the frame. A Frank Jackson 3 for the win just rimmed out for the Thunder at the buzzer. It was strangely exciting.

But in the minutes that mattered more for takeaways such as these, it was an underwhelming performance.

"We’ve had two good games, two bad games. We’ve shown that we can bounce back from the bad games," Zach LaVine said when asked what he's learned about this team from the preseason. "Even though we won tonight, they jumped on us early, and we’ve got to be able to respond to some of those leads. It’s a new group. We’re still learning. I think we’ve got to fight a little bit more."

Quick bullets

  • Zach LaVine has looked every bit the Bulls’ best player this preseason. His 20-point outing tonight brought his scoring average to 19.8 points per game on 55.6 percent shooting (45.5 percent from 3) for the four games. He was also noticeably active on the defensive end early -- swiping two steals and logging a handful of deflections in the first quarter -- before that unit disintegrated on a team-wide basis.

  • Coby White and Patrick Williams, the youngsters, stumbled a bit tonight. White played 30 minutes, but notched just four points (1-for-10 from the field, 1-for-6 from 3), three assists and two turnovers. Williams had nice moments stepping out to guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and disrupting passing lanes. But there was a lid on the rim until the fourth quarter, when each team’s benches emptied and the Bulls’ rampaged back into the game.

  • Chandler Hutchison has been a legitimate bright spot throughout the preseason. The length, the range and the intensity on the defensive end all stand out. Though there were no capital “E” explosive dunks tonight, he did sink two of his four his 3-point attempts.

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