The Bulls continue to say all the right things about competing hard and playing the right way. And the players who are allowed to play certainly are, despite Saturday’s 124-96 loss to the Nets.
But the true tone of this home-and-away series with major draft lottery ramifications that concludes Monday in New York got set about two hours before tipoff. That’s when coach Fred Hoiberg, with a straight face, detailed the reasons why Lauri Markkanen sat.
“When he came back from the (elbow) injury, the decision was made that he would not play in the back-to-backs. And we’re going to stick to that,” Hoiberg said. “He still has some issues with his elbow more than anything right now. We just want to make sure that we keep him healthy going into the offseason.”
Never mind that Markkanen missed only one game after banging his elbow in the March 27 loss to Houston. And while it’s true Markkanen said earlier this week that his banged-up elbow won’t fully heal until he gets sustained rest, he also has averaged 20.4 points in just 24.8 minutes on 55.7 percent shooting over his last five appearances.
Markkanen seemingly has inflicted more pain on opponents than felt it himself. And while it’s an important offseason for the rookie, he’s also 20.
With the loss, the Bulls fell into a tie with the Nets for seventh in the draft lottery standings, a half-game behind the sixth-place and idle Kings.
Markkanen is expected to play in the, um, huge rematch on Monday. But at this point, who knows? Such is the ugly nature of jockeying for draft lottery position.
The Nets owe their first-round pick to the Cavaliers, so they’re not involved in the charade directly. In fact, their 24 3-pointers set a Bulls’ opponent franchise record and fell just one short of the NBA mark. Quincy Acy missed a wide-open look and Spencer Dinwiddie rattled out another attempt in the waning seconds.
Sean Kilpatrick continued his torrid stretch with 20 points to lead the Bulls.
With Noah Vonleh still sidelined by a strained left calf and Robin Lopez on ice per management’s orders, Omer Asik received playing time for the second straight night.
“Defensively, he’s always going to be in the right spot, moves his feet well, has good anticipation,” Hoiberg said, again with a straight face.
Of course, Asik hadn’t played before Friday by coach’s decision 21 times since the Bulls acquired him in the Nikola Mirotic trade.
Bobby Portis started for Markkanen and promptly scored 13 of his 18 points in his first 10 minutes. It’s a wonder he started the second half.
Cameron Payne started both halves, and Hoiberg fielded another question on whether Payne or Jerian Grant projects to be Kris Dunn’s backup next season. Hoiberg wouldn’t answer that but did say he told Payne how proud he is of the much-maligned guard seizing his opportunity.
“He was really put in a tough situation last year when he got here when we were competing for that playoff spot, and I think he handled everything as well as he possibly could,” Hoiberg said. “Playing him off the ball, in a position that is not his natural spot on the floor, and then with a tough Summer League. I don’t think a lot of people understand that his grandmother, who played a huge part in his life, was not doing well as we were going through that and passed away shortly after Summer League.
“Then to come into training camp with the broken foot, but to stay with it and everything, I think he has performed very well. I think he has as good a grasp of the offense as anybody on this team. He really has helped our pace numbers, his thrust, his push, his throw-aheads. He has been excellent.”
So has been the Bulls’ draft lottery jockeying.
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