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After career game, Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen returns to Chicago

Jan 5, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA;  Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) dunks against Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. (1) at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

When Lauri Markkanen returns to Chicago with the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, Bulls fans might not recognize what they see.

Sure, the 7-footer still looks like the curly-haired Finnish big man who played for the organization for the first four seasons of his NBA career from 2017 to 2021.

However, his game has evolved so much since he last played for Chicago before spending a season in Cleveland and then being traded to Utah that there might not be much resemblance to onlookers.

Markkanen enters Saturday’s contest on the heels of the best scoring game of his NBA career, having lit up the host Houston Rockets for 49 points in a 131-114 Jazz win on Thursday.

The All-Star candidate hit 15 of 27 field-goal attempts, nailed six 3-pointers, made all 13 free-throw attempts and grabbed eight rebounds to help Utah snap a five-game skid. He credited those around him.

“I’ve said it over and over again this year; it’s just my teammates, the coaching staff, they put me in the right spots to succeed,” Markkanen said. “My teammates did a great job delivering me the ball, and it was just finishing my shots.”

Markkanen has elevated his game since joining the Jazz in a massive offseason trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland for the versatile forward and a bevy of assets, including three first-round picks. He is averaging a career-best 24.5 points — nine points higher than he averaged in four years with Chicago — on 53.0 percent shooting to go with 8.4 rebounds per game this season.

“He’s done such a good job of continuing to work on different ways he can impact the game offensively,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “He’s just shown an understanding of how to play when teams try to take certain things away from him.”

Markkanen has played once in Chicago since leaving the Bulls, scoring 28 points in a Cleveland win on Jan. 19, 2022.

He had 32 points and nine rebounds in Utah’s 114-107 home loss to the Bulls in November.

Chicago was led in that contest by DeMar DeRozan (26 points), Zach LaVine (20 points, six rebounds and five assists) and Nikola Vucevic (16 points and nine boards).

While Utah had Friday off after traveling from Texas, the Bulls earned an impressive 126-112 road win over the Philadelphia 76ers. LaVine hit 11 of 13 3-point attempts en route to 41 points as Chicago snapped the 76ers’ 11-game home winning streak.

“He got hot, we couldn’t find him, we started trapping him, and everybody else got easy opportunities because he was making shots,” Sixers guard James Harden said of LaVine. “Just one of those games.”

While LaVine flirted with his career high of 13 3-pointers, Vucevic took advantage of the absence of Sixers center Joel Embiid and notched a triple-double with 19 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.

The Bulls didn’t have the greatest start, though, falling behind by 13 points before going on a 28-11 run entering halftime.

LaVine hit three 3-pointers in a span of 1:27 in the third quarter to put Chicago up 88-74, giving the Bulls control for good.

“I didn’t think we started the game off very well,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought our defensive response, just in terms of rotations and being ready to help, was a lot better as the game went.”

–Field Level Media