Markkanen finding his old self in Chicago Bulls' new offense

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bulls' Lauri Markkanen (24) scores on a reverse layup past New York Knicks' Julius Randle during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Chicago.

    Chicago Bulls' Lauri Markkanen (24) scores on a reverse layup past New York Knicks' Julius Randle during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Chicago.

 
 
Updated 2/2/2021 8:59 PM

Last season, there was so much talk about what went wrong with Lauri Markkanen.

Former head coach Jim Boylen brought in a Houston Rockets-style of offense, where the focus would be on 3-pointers and layups, and Markkanen wasn't comfortable.

 

But now the 7-foot Finland native is back to his old self. He's averaging a career-high 20.5 points on the season, coming off consecutive 30-point performances, and he's done all that ... by shooting nothing but 3-pointers and layups.

It's true. During his two 30-point games, Markkanen took 23 of his 36 shots from 3-point land and the rest were either drives or cuts to the basket.

So maybe there's more going on here than just the style of offense, but Markkanen does seem more comfortable and aggressive this year. And obviously that's great news for the Bulls, even as he approaches restricted free agency this summer.

Remember, Markkanen's second-year numbers compared favorably to Dirk Nowitzki at the same point in their careers. In Year 3, though, Nowitzki took a giant leap toward NBA legend status, while Markkanen regressed.

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As usual, Markkanen low-keyed everything that's been happening when he spoke to reporters after Monday's victory over New York.

"My teammates are doing a good job. I'm getting pretty open looks," he said. "I would say the ball is going through the hoop."

Taking a closer look at the Bulls' offense in these last two games, Markkanen is doing a nice job of moving without the ball. He's finding room to spot up for 3s and making timely cuts to the basket.

What's even more apparent is the Bulls' coaching staff has done a nice job of gearing the offensive game plan around the players' skills. They've taken advantage of teams ganging up to stop Zach LaVine and utilized veteran Thad Young as a secondary distributor.

Over his last three games, Young has averaged 9.3 assists. That ranks fourth in the league in that time frame, behind James Harden, Trae Young and Ja Morant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I think offensively you have to look to do things in relationship to your personnel," coach Billy Donovan said. "And every team's got different personnel and you want to play to the strengths of personnel. I felt like we had to be a team that had to move and cut to generate shots. We're not like this breakdown, offensive team where our guards are just like going right around people."

LaVine's hot start helped Markkanen's offense. Since opponents tend to trap LaVine off screens, the Bulls have been using Markkanen to set a high screen for LaVine. One quick pass and Markkanen has an open look from 3.

This also works with Coby White. He hasn't put up huge numbers this season, but he has done enough to let teams know they don't want him getting hot from long range. So he often draws double-teams as well.

The alternate plan is when LaVine gets trapped, he'll find Young in the circle. When that happens, Markkanen knows to hit his spots. Whether he's open in the corner or cuts to the basket, he can feel confident in getting a timely and accurate pass from Young.

Donovan pointed out that Markkanen, White, Young and LaVine have all hit important shots late in recent games.

"I just think it's so hard to tell one guy to take you home every night," Donovan said. "You're going to have to do it through ball movement, and we've got to be able to generate good shots. I'd rather have a guy take a wide-open shot than another player take a shot completely under duress."

Another issue with Markkanen last season is teams tried to get physical and push him around a little bit. It's hard to say if that problem is solved, since Markkanen's rebounds (6.3) are well below the 9.0 he averaged in 2018-19.

"I'm trying to be active, just being off-the-ball active, too," Markkanen said. "Giving myself up on a cut that might get someone else an open shot if I just go to the hoop hard even when I don't have the ball."

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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