Markkanen’s long-awaited return should give Bulls lift
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.”
Rockets guard James Harden drives past the Bulls’ Jabari Parker during Saturday’s game in Houston.