LeBron James is inarguably one of the greatest basketball players to ever lace up and hit the hardwood. Fifteen years into his career, LeBron is still holding off every wave of fresh new superstar. He is the barometer by which all other players are measured. Not Steph Curry. Not Kevin Durant. LeBron James. So, when a fresh-faced rookie like Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls pulls in compliments from James, he must be doing something right. Chicago and Cleveland recently squared off in another contentious battle between the two Eastern Conference rivals. While Chicago lost, they may have gotten the greatest moral victory they could have asked for — Lauri Markkanen made his mark and the trappings of a franchise player began to show.
No matter how bad Chicago has been or how good the Cavaliers have gotten, Chicago-Cleveland games are always contentious and tightly-wound games. This was no different as the Bulls, led by rookie lotto pick Lauri Markkanen, tried to stave off an angry LeBron James and an underperforming Cleveland Cavalier team. In the first half of the basketball game, Chicago showed how scrappy they were by getting huge buckets from Justin Holliday and Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen scored 17 points in the first half while dominating the glass. He even made some moves that had LeBron James raising his eyebrows. James said of the former Arizona State rookie, “He’s going to play a lot. He’s good. It seems like he’s learning. He’s a good player.”
While James’ words were complimentary enough what happened on the court was even moreso. After the first half concluded, Cleveland began to aggressively work to shut down the sharpshooting Markkanen. There were even extended periods of time where LeBron James himself switched off in order to shut Markkanen down on the wing and keep him out of the paint. It worked and the 7-foot big man was held to just a single bucket in the second half. Markkanen was fundamentally written out of the game by Cleveland’s aggressive defense and as a result, the Bulls would fall short.
Markkanen set the rookie record for most three-point field goals made in their first three career games and he currently leads all rookies in rebounds and scoring. Coach Hoiberg of the Chicago Bulls has a tough decision ahead of him: does he leave Markkanen in the roster when forwards Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic re-join the team? Who knows for sure. What we do know is that Chicago may be seeing the slight shimmer of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.