Forward Lauri Markkanen muscles up in Bulls’ comeback win over Cavs

Zach LaVine was brilliant in scoring 42 points — including 21 in the fourth quarter — but the Bulls know this rebuild only works if Markkanen delivers, too.

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It was progress.

Anything over single-digit scoring feels like progress for Bulls big man Lauri Markkanen these days.

There were a few layups, an actual post-up, a couple of steals and even an offensive rebound thrown in the mix in the Bulls’ 118-116 comeback victory Saturday over the Cavaliers.

Were these signs that Markkanen is finally waking up or was it just another tease from the 7-footer to trigger false hope?

Only Markkanen has the answer.

“I think he’s working on it,’’ coach Jim Boylen said. “I think we know his character as a person and a player. He wants to help the team win. I have to make sure he’s involved.

“I have to make sure he gets more than two shots [like the second half on Friday]. He has fought through some injuries, and he’s given us all he’s had. He’s a big part of what we’re doing, and he’ll continue to be.’’

But when?

Markkanen finally snapped out of his early-season slumber and put together a nice December. It wasn’t anywhere near the numbers he put up last February, when he was playing the best basketball of his career, but it was better than what Boylen was getting from him in October and November.

Then came the ankle injury, and it has been back to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Markkanen since. A low point came Friday in Philadelphia: He had 12 points in the first half, then completely vanished in the second half, taking only two shots in the last two quarters.

It’s a storyline that is bordering on overkill, but the importance of Markkanen to the franchise cannot be stressed enough. Even Boylen acknowledged that, shouldering some of the blame for Markkanen’s inconsistencies.

“We need him out there,’’ Boylen said. “He needs to get more than two shots in a half, and we’ll try to do a good job of that.

“I talk to him about it a lot. Continue to drive the ball, continue to run the floor. I think he’s done a real good job of running the floor, especially in first halves. . . . We’ve got to continue that the whole game. I’ve said it before — when he defensive-rebounds, that gets him going. He’s got to continue to do that.’’

Markkanen’s 17 points were welcomed with open arms, especially on a night when the one pillar of the foundation that has pulled his weight all season — Zach LaVine — put up 42 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter, in a performance described as “Herculean’’ by Boylen.

Considering the Bulls looked lifeless most of the night and trailed by 19 at one point, all 42 were needed.

Trying to hold on to the lead late, the Bulls almost gave it away when Luke Kornet’s inbound pass went through LaVine’s hands, giving Cleveland a chance to win it with 8.6 seconds left.

Kevin Love missed on a drive, however, and the Bulls held on, improving to 16-28.

“I had the same mindset coming into the game,’’ Markkanen said. “I’m glad it looked different. Of course I have to be aggressive, but like I said, I had the same mindset. I got the ball more and just tried to make the best out of it.’’

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