Bulls face tough road with Markkanen the last starter standing
The final two weeks of Bulls season are likely to be forgettable.
They'll be sending a depleted lineup onto the floor Tuesday in Toronto. Zach LaVine (knee) and Otto Porter Jr. (shoulder) aren't playing, while Kris Dunn (back) is doubtful.
That leaves Lauri Markkanen as the main offensive threat and the one guy Toronto's defense will be focused on.
"Next man up is the focus," Markkanen said after Monday's practice at the Advocate Center. "We're trying to compete and win a couple games here down the stretch. It's an opportunity for other guys who don't get to play as much.
Markkanen's been navigating hills and valleys recently. A 14-game stretch from Jan. 27 to Mar. 1 was the best of his career, as he averaged 24.6 points and 13.3 rebounds. Then came a slump, which he's snapped out of a little bit in the past two games. He had 32 points and 13 boards in last week's win over Washington without LaVine or Porter.
"I'm doing the same things, trying to play the right way," Markkanen said. "I know there are guys who don't normally start and I talked about it with coach about making the right decision, maybe slow the pace down. At the same time, try to stay aggressive with guys being out."
Bulls coach Jim Boylen recapped Markkanen's season, which got off to a delayed start because of a sprained right elbow suffered in the opening week of training camp. The 7-foot Finland native made his season debut Dec. 1.
"He started the season in great shape," Boylen said. "He was big and strong. He had a great summer in the weight room, a great summer preparing for the season. I think you make a big jump in your second year in anything. You've got that experience. You know what it's all about now. He was ready to make that big jump.
"Unfortunately, he gets hurt and then he gets his rhythm in January and February and really plays well. He went through a little dip but it wasn't because he wasn't trying. It was part of his growth. When you start kicking butt in this league, people adjust to you. That's a learning moment for this year."
Markkanen hasn't shot the 3-pointer all that well, 36.2 percent on the season, but he seems to have found a go-to move in the slow drive to the basket where he's able to absorb contact, gather himself and hit a bank shot.
"We moved him around more this year," Boylen said. "He wasn't just a catch-and-shoot guy. He handled the ball in transition, made plays for teammates, ran pick-and-roll. There's a lot we can build on but also a lot he established in his game."
Boylen said Tuesday's likely starting lineup will include Markkanen, Robin Lopez, Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison and an undetermined small forward. This is the start of a tough back-to-back for the Bulls, with a home game against Portland to follow. The Raptors visit the United Center on Saturday.
"With every injury, there's an opportunity for someone to step into that role," Boylen said. "We've had guys do that pretty well this year. We have to respond from a tough performance and have that road dog together mentality."
Bulls game dayBulls vs. Toronto Raptors, 6:30 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena
TV: NBCSCH; Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Outlook: Toronto (51-23) is sitting comfortably in second place in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors aren't likely to catch Milwaukee for the No. 1 seed, and are 3 ½ games ahead of third-place Philadelphia. ... SF Kawhi Leonard is averaging 27.2 points and 7.5 rebounds. PF Pascal Siakam is a candidate for most improved, averaging 16.8 points. PG Kyle Lowry is at 14.7 points and 9.0 assists, while C Serge Ibaka now splits time with Marc Gasol. ... Toronto has lost two straight home games, including Sunday when Charlotte's Jeremy Lamb drained a half-court shot at the buzzer. ... The Raptors are 2-0 against the Bulls this season and the teams play again Saturday at the UC.
Next: Portland Trail Blazers, 7 p.m. Wednesday at the United Center
-- Mike McGraw