It wasn't always pretty, but the Bulls held on and snapped a three-game losing streak with a 113-106 victory over the Kings in Sacramento. Four observations from a game the Bulls had to have and wouldn't be denied:
Bench turns the tide
Out of the gates, this game looked destined for a(nother) lackluster Bulls performance. The team's first quarter offense was stilted in an all-too-familiar way - in the period, the Bulls shot 7-for-20 (35%) from the field, 3-for-12 (25%) from 3-point range and missed four layups, to boot. They trailed by as many as 11 in the frame.
Somehow, though, they were only behind 23-22 going into the second after closing the first on a 10-0 run. That spurt foreshadowed an explosive remainder of the first half, in which we glimpsed into the alternate reality where every optimistic preseason expectation came to fruition. The bench lit the torch. At the 7:56 mark of the second, Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine (!), Thad Young and Daniel Gafford all had plus-minuses of at least +13. None of the starters were better than a -7.
The Bulls forced 18 turnovers in the game, due in large part to the tone their scrappy, swarming reserves set early on. The 23 points they generated off said turnovers proved essential in warding off repeated comeback efforts by Sacramento.
Most encouraging is the fact that, after swinging the tide of the game, the rotations stabilized. They had their hiccups, but ultimately held on. All the starters played over 30 minutes; White was the only reserve to see over 20. That's a formula for sustained success.
For extended stretches, Lauri Markkanen was excellent
This is the Lauri Markkanen Bulls fans have been waiting for:
In the second quarter, specifically, he did everything you could ask of him, hitting 3-for-4 from downtown and repeatedly attacking the basket with gumption. The bench flipped an 11-point Bulls deficit into a six-point lead over a seven-minute stretch spanning the end of the first and the beginning of the second quarter, but the starters took that baton midway through the period and didn't miss a beat. The Bulls won the period 33-21 and went into the break leading 55-44.
Markkanen, for his part, canned two threes and and blew by Nemanja Bjelica off-the-dribble for a vicious (and much-needed) dunk in the latter half of the period. It feels hyperbolic to say that a third-year player ‘looked like his own self,' but he really did on Monday, for the first time in what feels like a long time.
With the eventual victory, the Bulls move to 4-0 in games where Markkanen converts more than three 3-point attempts (he was 4-for-8 tonight).
Buddy Hield got hot, but so did the Bulls
The Kings, of course, didn't go quietly into the night. The hosts (who hadn't lost at home since October before this one) admirably stormed back from a 19-point deficit second-half to at one point pull within two. It wasn't Hield's most efficient night (9-for-21 from the floor, 3-for-13 from three), but he did lead Sacramento in scoring with 26 points and tallied 14 in the fourth. His presence loomed large with every run the Kings made.
As mentioned, the Bulls finished the first quarter 3-for-12 on 3-pointers. In the final three, they connected on 13 of 25 3-point attempts, and they needed every last one of them.
Bulls (finally) hold a fourth quarter lead
The Bulls entered this game 25th in the NBA in fourth-quarter defensive rating. Hot starts and big leads aren't completely foreign to this team, but finishing out a full 48 minutes is.
It wasn't always pretty (as Stacey King said, "they keep you on the edge of your seat"), but they held on tonight. And the guys that sealed the game couldn't have been scripted better. Early in the fourth, with Buddy Hield beginning to warm, White stymied a few Sacramento bursts with two of his four threes to keep the Bulls at arms-length.
Then, down the stretch, it was Markkanen and LaVine leading the charge. LaVine had two crucial threes down the stretch, including one to put the Bulls up seven with just over a minute to play. Markkanen hit a pivotal long-ball of his own, and he and LaVine combined for eight free throw attempts (making them all) in the fourth. The two each scored 20+ points in the same game for the first time this season, on a combined 13-for-25 (9-for-15 on threes). That's an extremely encouraging development.
This was a game the Bulls could and should have won. And, for once, they did, handing the Kings their first home loss since October. What lies ahead will be plenty challenging, but for now, they can bask in a clean, deserved victory.
Drive home safe.
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