For the first time since Jan. 10, the Bulls played a basketball game. In the first of a two-game road blip, they surrendered a 22-point second-half lead to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, falling 127-125 in overtime.
Here’s what stood out:
Lauri Markkanen returns
After a seven-and-a-half game absence due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols (close contact), which was preceded by a calf contusion, Markkanen returned to the Bulls’ starting lineup Friday.
He played an active 15 first-half minutes. In the first quarter, he overcame an early turnover by canning a catch-and-shoot 3, drawing two free throw attempts driving downhill off a curl and blocking a Darius Bazley floater. In the second, he notched five more points, including an impressive and-one finish, and another block.
Later, as the game began to slip in the fourth quarter, Markkanen poured in two 3s that steadied the ship for a time, and, of course, didn’t end up mattering. He finished with 16 points, six rebounds, two blocks and a handful of other impressive defensive possessions. A solid individual showing in his first outing back.
We knew Markkanen’s return would leave someone on the outside looking in on the Bulls’ rotation. As might have been predicted, that person was Daniel Gafford. The spark plug center didn’t log a minute in this one, as Markkanen and Thad Young split minutes at backup center.
That decision made extra sense against a small-ball Thunder team missing Al Horford. But it could very well stick.
Zach LaVine caught fire for stretches, and the Bulls’ scoring attack was balanced. All five starters finished in double-figures. LaVine posted his fourth straight 30-point game with 35 on 11-for-18 shooting (8-for-13 from 3), Coby White chipped in 22-9-7 and and Wendell Carter Jr. (16 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks) had his fourth double-double of the season.
But turnovers were again the story of the night. The Thunder turned 24 Bulls cough-ups, six of which belonged to LaVine, into 33 points. Nine of those foibles came in a third quarter the Thunder won 37-27, then seven more came in the fourth. The snowball runs that occurred eventually ended in defeat.
Another oddity: The Bulls shot 11-for-16 from the charity stripe between the second half and overtime. Those points ended up looming large.
Curse of the Chesapeake Energy Arena strikes again
In a game on Dec. 16, 2019, the Bulls led the Thunder 68-49 — in Oklahoma City — at halftime but went on to lose 109-106. On Friday, they led 68-50 at the break.
Obviously, those circumstances aren’t analogous. Paul didn’t walk through that door for the Thunder. But this one mirrored that fateful contest. After pushing the Thunder back from slicing their deficit to two at one point in the third, the Bulls squandered a 16-point lead with 4:40 to play, as a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (33 points, 10 assists, 13-for-19 FG) three-point play over Coby White — on a possession afforded by a Markkanen offensive foul — knotted the game 118-118.
The Bulls’ final possession of regulation ended in a contested LaVine 3 that missed, and an overtime period in which the Bulls’ offense continued to stagnate ensued. The Thunder won the frame 9-7. The game ended on a LaVine pull-up 3 that glanced off rim as time expired that would have won it.
And, to make matters worse, LaVine hobbled off the floor after the final horn following a collision late in the overtime period. He said after the game he merely rolled his ankle and that he doesn’t anticipate anything else to come of it.
And they led by 10 with just over two minutes to go. What else can you say? It’s as bad a loss as you could script for the Bulls. After rollicking through the first half, all their demons struck in the second and the result is a defeat that mars goodwill from a competitive West Coast road trip. The losing streak is up to four.
Next up: In Dallas against the Mavericks on Sunday.