BULLS

Markka­nen’s long-awaited re­turn should give Bulls lift

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By K.C. John­son kcjohn­[email protected]­bune.com Twit­ter @kcjhoop

Lauri Markka­nen re­turns, but Bulls lose again, fall­ing 121-105 to Rockets.

HOUSTON — The Bulls were two games bet­ter than last season’s record when a cer­tain tough-to-match-up-with power for­ward re­turned af­ter missing 23 games.

A 121-105 loss to the Rockets on Satur­day night at the Toy­ota Cen­ter au­to­mat­i­cally pre­vents his­tory from re­peat­ing it­self be­cause Nikola Mirotic last season sparked an un­ex­pected se­v­engame win­ning streak and 10-2 mark when he re­turned from fa­cial frac­tures with the Bulls mired at 3-20.

But Lauri Markka­nen’s un­ex­pected re­turn from his right el­bow in­jury, which should be fol­lowed in the next week or two by Kris Dunn and Bobby Por­tis, in­jects a jolt of en­ergy into a mori­bund season plagued by wide­spread in­jury.

They need it. The Bulls (5-19) have lost six straight and 10 of 11.

Markka­nen ad­mit­ted to some nerves and came off the bench for the first time as a Bull, scor­ing 10 points in just over 25 min­utes in his season de­but. He hit 4 of 14 shots, in­clud­ing 2 of 6 3-point­ers, and had four re­bounds.

“I felt good,” Markan­nen said. “I had no prob­lems with my el­bow, so that’s a pos­i­tive. (I) missed some easy shots, but I think I played de­cent de­fense. I just got to get my legs back.”

James Har­den’s 30 points led the Rockets. Zach LaVine’s 29 led the Bulls, while Jabari Parker posted his fourth dou­ble-dou­ble in seven games with 21 points and 12 re­bounds.

“Lauri was telling me on the bench he was dis­ap­pointed in how he played,” LaVine said. “I was just happy to see him out there.”

Af­ter missing 18 of 21 3-point­ers Fri­day in Detroit, the Bulls shot just 8-for-32 from that dis­tance. Justin Hol­i­day ex­tended his fran­chise-record streak with at least one 3-pointer to 35 games but missed seven of eight.

The Bulls had dis­cussed in­ter­nally a Markka­nen re­turn Tues­day at the Pac­ers. And coach Fred Hoiberg said last week that Markka­nen would need “at least a week” of work af­ter be­ing cleared for con­tact. But Markka­nen un­der­went two con­tact prac­tices and mul­ti­ple in­di­vid­ual work­outs with­out is­sue.

So the Bulls de­cided to play him against the Rockets, nine weeks and two days af­ter he badly sprained his right el­bow on the third day of train­ing camp. Markka­nen’s re­turn fell out­side the ini­tial es­ti­mated time­line of six to eight weeks but within the lat­est time­line of eight to 10 weeks.

“Con­di­tion­ing is def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent than game shape,” Markan­nen said. “I’m prob­a­bly not go­ing to feel nor­mal (for a bit), but it’s the first step.”

Sport­ing a large pro­tec­tive sleeve, Markan­nen checked in at the 4-minute, 32-sec­ond mark of the first quar­ter. He missed his first jumper badly, barely hit­ting the rim, but sank a 3-pointer on his next at­tempt.

“I’m not wor­ried about my shot,” Markka­nen said.

Added Hoiberg: “I liked his ag­gres­sive­ness. I liked see­ing him go­ing to the hole with­out any reser­va­tion. He took some shots that he’ll make.”

The sched­ule sets up nicely for Markka­nen, who will start at power for­ward per­haps as early as Tues­day. Hoiberg said while cer­tain line­ups will fea­ture Parker and Markka­nen to­gether at power for­ward and cen­ter, “it’s also about get­ting (Parker) reac­cli­mated to play­ing (small for­ward).” Hoiberg quickly shelved the idea of play­ing Parker at small for­ward in the pre­sea­son but tried him there in stretches Satur­day.

The Bulls play Tues­day and then not un­til Fri­day. The lat­ter game be­gins a back-to-back set of home games against the Thun­der and Celtics. Markka­nen has been cleared to han­dle back-to-backs.

“We will be care­ful with his min­utes,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll have con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion while he’s on the floor to see if he needs a break to get his wind, but he’s done a great job of prepar­ing him­self for this mo­ment.”

DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP

Rockets guard James Har­den drives past the Bulls’ Jabari Parker dur­ing Satur­day’s game in Houston.

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