By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — There’s no individual more vital to a Fred Hoiberg offense than the facilitator, a reality that was at the root of the Bulls coach’s pregame one-liner Friday night.
Asked if he was envious of the powerful Rockets scoring 90 points in the first half of a win Thursday night, Hoiberg quipped back, “I’d like to get 90 in a game.”
A big reason his rebuilding Bulls hadn’t been doing that amid a season in which they rank dead last in nearly every significant offensive category was because of their poor point guard play, which reached the abyss in an ugly loss to the Thunder on Wednesday. Two nights later, the Bulls flashed what Hoiberg hopes was a glimpse of the future.
Point guard Kris Dunn, once again coming off the bench, scored a career-high 22 points and added a season-high seven assists as the Bulls outlasted the Hornets for a 123-120 win at the United Center, marking their season-best for points scored. Dunn didn’t win his head-to-head matchup with Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, who made his 47 points look smooth, save for a go-ahead layup attempt that rolled off in the waning seconds.
What Dunn did do was everything Hoiberg asked of him. Dunn’s play in his first eight games had ranged from uneven to ugly, and he entered play Friday with a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio that was driving the coaching staff bananas.
“The seven assists, one turnover, that’s huge growth for Kris Dunn,” Hoiberg said. “He went out there and made the right play darn near every time he had the ball in his hands.”
Dunn was at his best late, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter. That included the driving layup to put the Bulls up for good with 2:24 left and a foray into the lane for a short bank shot that gave them a three-point lead with 41 seconds left.
More notable was that Dunn looked more confident with an outside shot that’s been a weakness in the NBA. He shot 10-of-16, with four of those baskets being mid-range jumpers and two others being 3-pointers.
“You just got to read the game, see how the game is flowing,” Dunn said. “If I have to be aggressive, I have to be aggressive. If I have to get my guys involved, I’m more than fine doing that. That’s what I’m trying to improve on. All my life, I’ve been aggressive.”
Dunn accomplished both of those tasks Friday. He was a key piece of the Jimmy Butler trade last June, and his play was a step in the right direction at a position of dire need for the Bulls, who cycled through four starting point guards in 2016-’17 and also took a flier on Cameron Payne in a trade with the Thunder last February that’s trending toward being one of the worst deals in franchise history.
The challenge for Dunn is to bring that level of play consistently, which he hasn’t done yet. What gives the Bulls confidence that he can accomplish that?
“It was more of a controlled attack in the paint,” said Justin Holiday, who scored a team-high 27 points. “He was solid, he didn’t turn the ball over. He took his time, he got to his spots, he made the right play. It was more controlled and poised play from him.”
The Bulls (3-10) leave Saturday afternoon for a four-game road trip out West over the Thanksgiving week. Late Friday, Hoiberg didn’t commit to a starting lineup for a contest at Phoenix on Sunday. As Dunn played 26 minutes and closed, Jerian Grant had 10 points and five assists in 22 minutes of what Hoiberg termed a “solid” performance.
But it’s clear Dunn has been better bringing the attacking mentality that Hoiberg desires. If his decision-making stays solid, his inclusion in the starting lineup will come sooner than later.
“We need that leader out there that has the ball in their hands the majority of the game,” Hoiberg said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.