I forgot what winning feels like. It’s actually good, and it’s been a while.
The last time Chicago won a game, it came at the Charlotte Hornets’ expense. It was Nov. 17, and we were all three weeks younger (where has the time gone?).
A 10-game losing streak was endured before the schedule kindly dished up another game against the Hornets. It would all be worth it if it meant the lowly Bulls would could shame the Hornets again.
They did. And damn it was good.
Four wins in 24 games, two of them being against the Hornets. I’m not sure who that says more about, the Bulls or the Hornets, but it’s instantly amusing. More importantly, the players deserved this win after suffering a fourth quarter meltdown against the Indiana Pacers only days earlier.
Here are some things I took away from the well-fought victory.
Kris Dunn was mostly great but sometimes terrible
Dunn remains a complete enigma.
In a moment, on any given possession, the sophomore point guard can tantalise, then leave you wanting more only seconds later.
The ease in which he swoops into the lane hooks you instantly. As your excitement levels begin to rise, the runner that misses the rim entirely kills off any good vibes.
You start focusing on the negatives, thinking about airballs and the 24 shot attempts needed to score 20 points, until you realise he also had six rebounds, 12 assists and only one turnover. Oh, and as always, the defense was outstanding, forcing three steals and corralling Kemba Walker into 5-of-16 shooting.
And just like that, Dunn has you again (until the next clanked jumper).
That is the confusion Dunn creates. At least for me. Maybe I’m just a filthy pessimist. Or maybe this is just the Kris Dunn experience. Whatever it is, this game encapsulates his Bulls tenure perfectly: The flashes were enticing, the volume numbers leap off the box score, his playmaking was the best its been, but I’m left wanting more.
That may be unfair. We do need to remember that Dunn is still raw and a developing player. He should be allowed to play through these issues. Though I hope he never takes 24 shots again, having enough confidence to take those shots is a step in the correct direction.
I still question what his role will be when he moves back to a lower usage role, but he continues to improve and exceed expectations set from his horrendous rookie season. This game was an important step in his development, and his play is trending up.
Next steps: Continue to clean up the ball handling issues. Keep the turnovers low. Work on converting around the rim. Create more contact on drives and increase the free throw rate.
Do that and I’m sold.
The reserve unit looked good with Mirotic back
This was always going to be a fascinating game to watch and analyse. How coach Fred Hoiberg looked to reinsert Nikola Mirotic back into the rotation was of primary interest. He had several options to utilise, and if this game is anything to go by, Mirotic and Portis will be playing most of their minutes together.
Cristiano Felicio appears to be out of the rotation entirely, racking up a DNP-CD. Portis looks set to be the back up center, with Mirotic playing all of his minutes behind Markkanen.
Mirotic only had six points in his return, missing five of seven shots. Clearly fighting through rust and fatigue, the timing on his jump shot was off, but the ability to create offense was vital for the Bulls’ second unit. His own offense wasn’t a positive, but he was team-high plus-9 in 15 minutes of play.
Importantly, there were no signs of tension between Mirotic and Portis, which is notable.
Playing Mirotic and David Nwaba in the second unit instead of Felicio and Pondexter will make the Bulls much more competitive. Don’t worry, the team will still be bad enough to rack up the tanking losses, but it will make games more entertaining.
Markkanen can guard in space
When scouting Lauri Markkanen before the draft, I did not expect this level of defense so soon.
Really, though, how many people did?
Switching onto a wing on the perimeter above the 3-point line in isolation and forcing him into a bad midrange jumper, as a rookie 20-year-old rookie still learning NBA defensive schemes, is truly insane.
Markkanen may have had 24 points, 12 rebounds and some clutch triples, but this defensive possession was the most illuminating.
Robin Lopez is far too underappreciated
The attention on this play will be centered around the sweet pass from Dunn out of pick and roll to an open Markkanen for a huge 3-pointer. Whilst that is true and deserves focus, Robin Lopez also needs some of our love for being the catalyst of this play.
Dunn is able to get into the lane and collapse the defense with ease because of the initial screen set by Lopez. The mammoth center eats up Kemba Walker, allowing Dunn a safe passage into the paint and all the time in the world to find Markkanen out high.
It’s the small things like this that make Lopez insanely valuable. He won’t be credited for a stat here; Dunn and Markkanen will be the beneficiaries for his timely screen. It’s such a pertinent example of how valuable a big man like Lopez can be in the development of Chicago’s youth.
Dunn and Markkanen both look better on that possession because of their unheralded center. That should be valued in a rebuild more so than any lowly asset Lopez may net in a trade.
Don’t deal Lopez. He needs to stay, and needs more love.
David Nwaba is the hero we need
The Bulls had a huge offseason. The Butler deal and the players received in the trade will ultimately shape the Bulls’ future, but the acquisition of David Nwaba has been so underrated and timely.
Watching a rebuilding team can be difficult, particularly when games are uncompetitive. That’s why someone like Nwaba is so valuable to a team like the Bulls. Balls to the wall is his only speed.
Nwaba’s energy is palpable through a TV screen. The intensity and athleticism on the perimeter is a welcome attribute for a squad deficient in those areas. With 11 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 32 minutes of play, the reserve wing forced Hoiberg to leave him on the floor deep into the game.
And why wouldn’t you when he does things like this?
I’ll admit, moves like these from role players who build a career on working harder than others get me giddy. But like the Lopez screen above, this Nwaba cut is more than just a well executed basketball fundamental.
Dunn got caught by picking up his dribble (something he should never do). He was on an island, stuck looking for an option. Nwaba was his lifeline, beating Batum backdoor along the baseline for the baseline slam, his signature play.
If Nwaba doesn’t make the heady play, it puts greater pressure on Dunn to find someone in a tough spot. Instead, Dunn gets credited an assist and the Bulls get an efficient bucket at the rim.
That’s what a great teammates does. They relish the dirty work, making others look better. Nwaba is this team’s Taj Gibson.