Westerlund: Observations From Bulls-Hawks

By Cody Westerlund–

CHICAGO (CBS) — The Bulls picked up their first win of the season with a 91-86 victory against the Hawks at the United Center on Thursday evening.

1. Rookie power forward Lauri Markkanen didn’t have an efficient offensive game, scoring 14 points on 5-of-13 field goals, but the Bulls were left raving about him once again postgame.

With the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead with about a minute left, they ran a high pick-and-pop with Jerian Grant and Markkanen. When the Hawks didn’t switch and were slow to recover, Markkanen stepped up and drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing for a 90-86 lead with 48.5 seconds left.

Of the play designed for him, Markkanen said, “I guess you could say that worked out pretty well” and added he expected to be open.

“Every shot I shoot, I believe it’s going in,” Markkanen said.

Save for some loose handles a time or two, Markkanen looked comfortable throughout. Coach Fred Hoiberg praised him for attacking the hoop when his shot wasn’t falling. Teammates keep referencing his demeanor.

“He always stays cool, just tries to do his job and goes on with his day,” Justin Holiday said. “He’s very poised, as you guys can see. I think it’s the environment and coaches we have here. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. He doesn’t have to worry about anything. He can just play his game. That speaks a lot to what (John Paxson) and (Gar Forman) have been doing and what Fred has done here.”

The 7-foot Markkanen also grabbed 13 rebounds to register his second double-double in his first four career games, joining Artis Gilmore as the only Bulls to ever accomplish that feat, according to Elias.

2. In recent days, the story circulated that Markkanen asked former Bulls forward Brian Scalabrine, the little-used fan favorite, permission to wear No. 24. Markkanen expanded on the story, saying he met Scalabrine in the pre-draft process in Boston. Scalabrine, a television analyst on Celtics broadcasts, actually gifted Markkanen his No. 24 Bulls jersey with “Scalabrine” emblazoned on the back a few days before the draft. The Bulls then selected Markkanen at No. 7 as part of the package in sending Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves.

“When I was deciding my number here, all my numbers that I’d worn before were already retired or taken by someone,” Markkanen said. “So I needed to make a decision. I shot him a text, said I can be the ‘Finnish Mamba.’

“I didn’t get to know him that well, but he’s a funny dude.”

3. The Nikola Mirotic-Bobby Portis incident continues to linger over the Bulls. Mirotic remains in the league’s concussion protocol after Portis’ punch in an Oct. 17 practice broke two bones in his face and concussed him. He likely needs surgery but can’t undergo that until his concussion symptoms subside. Portis has now served half of his eight-game suspension.

Hard feelings remain, especially and understandably so on Mirotic’s end. He’s had limited communication with only select teammates, and Portis revealed last Saturday that Mirotic didn’t return his call or text message.

In a new development Thursday, Mirotic is open to a trade, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times each reported, because he believes a relationship with Portis is untenable. Mirotic has a no-trade clause for one season after signing a two-year deal with a team option on the second year in restricted free agency. He can’t be traded until Jan. 15, the Tribune reported.

The Bulls are in a difficult situation with little leverage in potential trade negotiations. In addition to concerns surrounding his recent violent act, the 22-year-old Portis progressed little last season. Nonetheless, they’ll be gauging the trade market for each player now.

The Bulls are in rebuilding era that needs to be marked by player development, building value on players to acquire future assets and setting a culture of togetherness. The Mirotic-Portis saga is the antithesis of all that.

4. The Bulls will play many games this season that don’t seem to matter. Thursday brought one that actually could be truly meaningful in the standings, in the twisted sort of way. In pregame interviews, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer disputed the term “rebuilding” to describe his team. However you want to term its standing, Atlanta looks to be a fierce competitor with Chicago and a few others to be the league’s worst team.

Ping-pong balls are at stake every night the Bulls and Hawks take the floor. The worst team will receive 25 percent of them come May’s lottery. The Knicks (0-3) are the early clubhouse leader as the league’s only winless team. The Bulls improved to 1-3, while the Hawks are now 1-4.

Chicago and Atlanta play again on Jan. 20 and March 11. For teams projected in the 20-win range, those contests could loom large.

5. Point guard Kris Dunn continued to sit out as he deals with swelling and soreness in his left index finger that he suffered an open dislocation of on Oct. 6. He had a big wrap and was icing the finger pregame. Dunn is nearing a return, though he remains questionable against the Thunder on Saturday.

When he does come back, Dunn will be added to the point guard mix that features Jerian Grant starting and Kay Felder as the backup. Grant has been solid early on, averaging 7.3 assists through four games. He should continuing starting. So the question is whether Felder remains in the rotation. He had two points on 1-of-5 shooting Thursday.

Felder’s case rests in his ability to generate offense off the dribble on a team lacking playmakers. Hoiberg suggested there could be units in which he could play Felder alongside Grant to keep the former in the rotation.

“There are some different things we can do,” Hoiberg said. “Jerian has played off the ball some in practice.”

The Bulls also played without forward Paul Zipser because of a knee contusion. Denzel Valentine started in his place and didn’t fare well, scoring 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting with nine rebounds, four assists and three turnovers.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

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