With Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen back in the mix, Friday will be interesting

With Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen back in the mix, Friday will be interesting

The Bulls have played their best basketball of the early part of the season without Markkanen on the floor. Is he about to jump in for the ride up, or will his return weigh things back down? Friday might be must-watch.

Now things are about to get interesting.

To say that Lauri Markkanen entered this season with a lot to prove is a major undersell, especially considering the Bulls organization and the forward’s camp couldn’t even agree on anything close to an extension price.

Markkanen’s response was to take an almost “bet on myself’’ approach, and through the first three games he seemed to do just that, averaging 20 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. In all losses, however.

Then the calf flares up in Washington, Markkanen is put on the shelf, and then stays on the shelf when the league’s coronavirus protocol red flags him through contract tracing.

What’s happened since?

The Bulls won three of their next four without the 7-footer, and then went toe-to-toe with both Los Angeles teams last weekend.

Along the way, coach Billy Donovan has developed a closing unit of Coby White, Zach LaVine, Garrett Temple, Thad Young and – when the back spasms aren’t acting up – Otto Porter Jr.

But now Markkanen has been cleared to practice, is getting his conditioning back, and is expected to return to the starting lineup on Friday when the team plays in Oklahoma City. What Donovan has to decide is how many minutes Markkanen earns in returning to the lineup, and more importantly, does he trust the fourth-year player enough for closing time is the game is within reach?

As is his modus operandi, Donovan doesn’t show his hand with lineups and rotations heading into games. What he would say is he was glad to have Markkanen and Ryan Arcidiacono back in practice, and with Tuesday’s game with the Celtics cancelled, it bought him more time to get both players up and running from a conditioning standpoint.

“They were able to do a little bit of work while we were out on our West Coast trip,’’ Donovan said. “They’ve certainly got to get their timing back five-on-five. I thought both of them physically in terms of their conditioning was very, very good. I think both guys would probably agree, at least I’m just going off what they said to me even [Monday] that they feel like they need some time to get their timing back playing five-on-five. There’s something, I think, as a player you miss when you’re not having that level of contact on a consistent and regular basis, and they’ve missed that contact.’’

They’ve also missed some new installs on both the offensive and defensive side of the floor, even in trying to keep up with shootarounds and practices on Zoom.

“I mean we watched the games obviously, and we’ve been really competitive the last couple games, so we just got to be able to come back in and have that high energy, that competitive level right off the bat,’’ Markkanen said of his absence. “I’m sure we’re going to get some work done offensively and defensively [the rest of this week], because I’m sure they did some new stuff on the road, stuff like that. But I don’t expect stuff too different.’’

Markkanen did say that while his rhythm and timing were a tick off, his conditioning in the scrimmages wasn’t an issue. As far as his expectations come Friday with the lineup and how he’s used? Markkanen was asked it three different ways by the media, and was very vague in all three responses.

“We’ve been here a couple of days, so we ran with the team in a full practice and that’s how you get your timing and rhythm back, just playing with the guys,’’ Markkanen said. “There’s no shape like game shape, though.’’

Friday just got more interesting.

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