By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — As the Bulls cratered in a 3-20 start, with find-new-ways-to-falter losses piling up seemingly every night out, a few of the young players took a non-traditional view.
They joked about it.
“All the time,” Kris Dunn said.
The Bulls are still chuckling. These days, it’s for lighter reasons and their recent successes. After rallying from a 15-point second-quarter deficit for a 92-87 win against the Knicks at the United Center on Wednesday evening, the Bulls (12-22) have now gone 9-2 since their abysmal start.
“A lot of people, when you’re 3-20, you hang your heads,” Dunn said. “We just laughed, because that whole time, we were positive. We didn’t care about the losses we had early, because we understood we could’ve won those games. There were a lot of close games we let slip by. We just laughed because out of nowhere, we just changed it.”
How on earth did that happen, outside the self-assured and hot-shooting Niko Mirotic returning?
“That chemistry clicked,” said Dunn, who had a team-high 17 points and five assists. “Right now, we’re tough. Right now, we’re going out there and competing with each and every team we’re playing against.”
What was different about Wednesday was the Bulls didn’t play all that well and still won, which is, well, nothing like the rebuilding team that management set them on a course to be. Playing the second of a back-to-back after a demanding win at Milwaukee on Tuesday, Chicago showed little energy early, scored just 17 points in the first quarter, had 15 turnovers on the evening and shot 40.7 percent.
Coach Fred Hoiberg used the phrase “hung in there” to describe his team’s play for much of Wednesday. Lauri Markkanen acknowledged the offense was bad. What the Bulls did well was hold the Knicks to identical 40.7 percent shooting, including 4-of-23 on 3-pointers.
What mattered most in the end was that the Bulls found a way to win a close game again. This one was highlighted by Markkanen’s go-ahead run-out dunk to give them an 88-86 lead with 39 seconds left, which came off a long pass from Dunn and after Kristaps Porzingis (game-high 23 points) had taken a stumble battling on the boards and Markkanen beat the rest of the Knicks down the floor.
“That’s one of the things we work on every day, is throwing that throw-ahead pass,” Hoiberg said. “Glad we completed it at a crucial time in the game.”
On the ensuing Knicks possession, Markkanen (12 points on 5-of-15 field goals) made a steal for a stop. Knicks guard Jarrett Jack then split a pair of free throws with 8.5 seconds left trying to tie it before the Bulls closed it out with free throws.
Since their 10-game losing streak in which they blew three leads of 17 points or more, the Bulls are 5-1 in games decided in overtime or by five points or fewer.
“We have had a lot of growth in finding a way to do that,” Hoiberg said. “It’s very important, again, to try to find guys that can help close games for you. We had a couple big shots.”
That confidence, development and timely playmaking have combined to flip the script on the Bulls’ season, from a surefire top-five draft slot to a path that leaves everyone pondering what to make of this season.
For the players’ part, they’re simply living in the moment.
“We believe in each other, and that’s what it’s all about,” Markkanen said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.