Three takeaways from last night’s Chicago Bulls loss

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 21: David Nwaba /

The Chicago Bulls lost a close game last night to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Here are three takeaways from the game.

Chicago’s remarkable seven-game win streak, on the heels of a 10-game losing streak, came to an end at last night against the reigning Eastern Conference champions. With the 115-112 win, Cleveland’s record rose to 24-9, just third in the Eastern Conference by percentage points. The Cavaliers are 13-4 at home thus far. Chicago’s record fell to a totally respectable 10-21, and their tank, presumably, resumes now.

My first big takeaway is that these Cavaliers are generally old and slow, but they have a highly motivated LeBron James at the helm and a whole bunch of shooters around him. The Cavaliers were clearly flustered by Chicago’s athleticism, energy and (in many cases) length.

Markkanen played like it was October

Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen game enjoyed his second big game against LeBron James last night. In his third contest since returning from a one-week back spasm-induced absence, Markkanen scored 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting from the field. He had 19 points (on seven-of-12 shooting) and eight rebounds in his first tilt against the Cavaliers.

Markkanen consistently burned his charges, Kevin Love and Jeff Green, with all manner of moves. My favorites were a slick step-back jumper right in Green’s grill in the middle of the second quarter and a cruel and usual poster on Jae Crowder. Incidentally, I still can’t believe Jeff Green is playing meaningful minutes on the Cavaliers. He’s been way better for them than, say, Derrick Rose has this for Cleveland year.

Mirotic continues to play like it’s March

Nikola Mirotic didn’t put up the kind of stat-stuffing, trade value-boosting night he’s proven himself to be capable of during the win streak. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a big night for Chicago. Nikola Mirotic scored 15 points, on five-of-nine shooting from the field, in just 25 minutes. He also chipped in five rebounds.

Though the 26 year-old Montenegrin has been outplaying Lauri Markkanen since he’s been back on the court for the Bulls, the rookie has remained the Bulls’ starting power forward. Chicago head coach Fred Hoiberg has experimented with putting Niko and Lauri on the floor simultaneously, slotting one at the four and the other at the five. By and large this has helped space the floor, and the players’ mobility and solid court sense has helped them keep pace on defense in the moments that they do share the floor together.

Niko has stopped taking all the head-scratching pump fakes that used to stagnate his offensive game. He has been given more room to operate with the ball and control the flow of the offense. Mirotic’s defense overall looks vastly improved, and continued to this eve. His effort and hustle frustrated Cleveland.

Denzel Valentine remains a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.

I was thinking about discussing Robin Lopez or Kris Dunn, two other near-heroes during the game. RoLo scored 14 points on seven-of-11 shooting from the field and offered some solid rim protection and general coverage within the paint. Dunn dished out 14 assists, notched 10 points, and pulled down five boards to boot!

I decided instead to tackle the Rorschach test of young Bulls, Denzel Valentine. The second-year man, who has been outplayed by his backup David Nwaba all season long, has one certifiable NBA skill: he can shoot from deep.

Valentine is connecting on 40.3% of his long-range looks this season, and was four-of-seven (57.1%) from outside last night. He played a game-high 35 minutes, and went seven-for-ten from the field overall.

Valentine also had five rebounds and four dimes. He will set his shot while awkwardly snaking around his man, who will be thrown off guarding his first movement, to the point that the defender can’t recover in time to properly guard Valentine at the top of his release.

It’s a bizarrely effective strategy, but if that’s all he can give us on a consistent basis. The occasions where Valentine gives an extra effort to control a defensive rebound happen more as a result of the wing’s length and awareness than any athleticism or speed.