Bulls beat Jazz depite Markkanen's best efforts
Where have all the tanking teams gone?
Some observers were expecting an all-out race to the bottom in the NBA this year, as teams scrambled to land 7-foot-4 French phenom Victor Wembanyana in next year's draft.
Utah was thought to be one of those tanking teams after trading away Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O'Neal. But the Jazz got off to a hot start, as did other tanking suspects like Indiana, Sacramento and Oklahoma City.
Former Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen spent four years in Chicago toiling for a team focused on lottery picks. The 7-foot Finnish forward was anxious to show his old team how much he's improved Monday in Salt Lake City.
Markkanen scored 32 points and knocked down 7 of 11 shots from 3-point range. But the Bulls used a strong second half to post a 114-107 victory. After that surprising start, Utah (12-11) has lost five in a row.
DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 26 points, Zach LaVine scored 20 and Coby White provided a nice lift off the bench with 15.
Utah trailed by 4 points when Patrick Williams picked the pocket of Kelly Olynyk and the Jazz was called for a clear-path foul. Williams hit both free throws. Then, after Nikola Vucevic rebounded his own miss, DeRozan hit a fallaway bank shot to make it an 8-point lead with 3:12 left.
The Bulls (9-11) trailed 65-55 early in the third quarter, then started chipping away with DeRozan and Lavine doing most of the scoring. They finally took the lead at 74-73 on 2 free throws by Alex Caruso with 4:56 left in the quarter.
They added a nice push early in the fourth quarter. An 8-0 run included a layup by Goran Dragic, fast-break dunk from White, then a steal and lay in by center Andre Drummond. Drummond (10 rebounds) added a follow dunk of a White miss to put the Bulls ahead 94-82 with just under 10 minutes remaining.
The first half was the Markkanen show, as he scored 24 points, hit 9 of his first 10 shots and 5 of 6 from 3-point range. Utah shot 53.3% as a team before halftime, and went 11-for-24 from 3-point range. The Bulls were 3 of 10 from long range in the first half.
Ahead of his first matchup against the Bulls wearing a Jazz uniform, Markkanen told NBC Sports Chicago he learned and grew from the tough times in Chicago.
"You always hope to play for one team for your whole career, but it just didn't work out," Markkanen said. "I think I've definitely got better from those years, just mentality-wise and physically being in a better place. I'm smarter and better now."
When the 2021 offseason arrived, the Bulls were hoping to keep Markkanen and pair him with Williams at power forward. Markkanen preferred a fresh start and the Bulls eventually worked out a multi-team sign-and-trade to send him to Cleveland. The Bulls landed a first-round pick and forward Derrick Jones Jr. from Portland in return.
Markkanen was involved in very the start of the Bulls' rebuild. On draft night 2017, he was taken by Minnesota and traded to the Bulls with LaVine and Kris Dunn for Jimmy Butler. The No. 7 overall pick found himself playing for a team looking to land multiple spots in the lottery, and played for three head coaches in his first four seasons.
"I have very good memories from Chicago playing-wise and off the court -- my kids being born there, growing as a family in the city of Chicago and playing with one of the most historic franchises," Markkanen told NBC Sports Chicago. "Obviously, there were definitely hard times as well, missing the playoffs four years straight."
A couple things stand out with Markkanen's advanced stats this year. His usage rate is a career-high and his percentage of shots taken from 3-point range is a career-low. While he shot the lights out from 3 on Monday, Markkanen's been able to utilize his all-around skills with the Jazz. His scoring average (21.7 points) and field-goal percentage (. 521) are career-highs.