Closing time: Markkanen hits big shot late for Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
An unfamiliar sight occurred at the United Center Saturday night. And we’re not talking about the 106-96 victory over the Cavaliers, which the Bulls used to snap a five-game losing streak.
Lauri Markkanen played closing minutes.
No player has fallen farther in stature from season’s start to now than the former seventh overall pick. No player’s role had changed more from trade deadline day until now.
You didn’t need the first five-game, single-digit scoring stretch of Markkanen’s four-year career to know that.
So when Billy Donovan pulled an effective Daniel Theis for Markkanen with 3 minutes, 55 seconds left and the Bulls clinging to a six-point lead, it felt like a moment. To Markkanen, it simply felt good.
“As a competitor, you always want to be out there,” Markkanen said. “First of all, to actually have a close game, that feels good. And just being out there, it’s a great feeling to be with the guys and be in.”
Darius Garland’s 3-pointer with 3:23 left made it a one-possession game. That’s when Markkanen knocked down his third 3-pointer of the night with 2:30 left, part of his 16-point, six-rebound effort.
To Donovan, Markkanen’s impact moved beyond making shots.
“He posted up a couple times. He drove to the basket, even though he didn't finish. He went in there hard to rebound,” Donovan said. “He did a lot of really good things.”
This is the push-and-pull that the coaching staff has worked with young players to understand. What goes into winning. How to impact the game when a shot isn’t falling.
“Whatever Lauri’s minutes are, whether it’s 15 or 27 (Saturday), what kind of impact does he make where he’s saying, ‘You know what, they’re going to have to keep me on the floor. I do too much. I rebound. I run the floor. I defend. I protect the rim. If I’m not shooting, I do other things.’ I think this is part of their growth and development,” Donovan said. “I think Lauri is a very talented and gifted player with a lot of length and size. There’s a lot he can do in the game just besides being a stretch-shooting guy. There have been plenty of guys like him in the league that are very one-dimensional. And he’s young enough right now that I don’t think he wants to be put in a box for himself or his career where he’s just a catch-and-shoot guy.”
Nor does Markkanen want to be put in a box where he’s a reserve. Though he continues to say all the right things publicly and display an upbeat, supporting attitude to his teammates from the bench, logging 21 minutes or fewer---which he had done six times since the trade deadline---isn’t what Markkanen envisioned at the start of this season.
Neither is attempting just 11 shots over a recent three-game stretch.
“We’re running different stuff. After the trades, obviously we changed our style of play a little bit. So I think that’s part of it, running different stuff and being in different spots on the floor,” Markkanen said. “I always tell myself that I think I can be more aggressive when I catch the ball. Maybe sometimes the opportunity hasn’t been there as much.
“When you play less, it’s obviously not as many opportunities as if you play 33 minutes. But I look at myself and try to do whatever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do it. That’s all you can do.”
Serious scrutiny always will follow Markkanen because he arrived as one of the centerpieces of the Jimmy Butler trade. Though that was under a different managerial regime, the new one of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley publicly endorsed Markkanen and engaged in extension talks before the season.
Three months later, Markkanen landed in trade talks centered around Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball. And Saturday marked the 10th straight game he came off the bench.
“It’s a new role. I think a lot of guys have sacrificed. I’m not going to do anything that jeopardizes the team. I’m going to play my role as well as I can,” Markkanen said. “I think in the last games, I could’ve done a better job. I’m just trying to focus on staying positive and bringing the energy off the bench. The opportunity is going to be there. Like (Saturday), I think I got good looks, and it’s more shots than I’ve gotten the last couple games. So I’m glad I could knock some of them down.
“I try to stay as positive as I can. But then it’s not really affecting me off the court. At the end of the day when I go home to my family, it’s all good. I wasn’t losing my sleep over it.
“It was frustrating to lose (my starting job), not being out there and closing out games. But I always say, control what you can control. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Therein lies the rub. Donovan and the coaching staff are trying to ensure Markkanen controls his ability to impact the game beyond making shots. So the push-and-pull continues, with a step in the right direction Saturday night.