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Knicks get revenge vs. Bulls, but could eye something bigger

Lauri Markkanen will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and New York will have plenty of cap space and a need for a stretch four. Coach Tom Thibodeau coveted Markkanen in his Minnesota days, so things could get interesting.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has always been a Lauri Markkanen fan, so the Bulls’ soon-to-be restricted free agent could find his way to New York.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has always been a Lauri Markkanen fan, so the Bulls’ soon-to-be restricted free agent could find his way to New York.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

It wasn’t the greatest night for Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.

Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks had a hand in that, earning the split in the two-game series with a 107-103 victory at the United Center and holding Markkanen to nine points.

But all eyes remain focused on the 7-footer from Finland.

Unable to reach a contract extension with the Bulls before the season, Markkanen will be a restricted free agent in the offseason.

The Bulls (8-12) will have an opportunity to match any offers made for the stretch four, and there’s no doubt that plenty of offers will come.

Don’t rule out an offer from these same Knicks.

New York (10-13) will be a very cap-friendly team after this season, and Thibodeau has always been a big fan of Markkanen’s game.

He even admitted shortly after the 2017 draft that if the trade for Jimmy Butler, in which the Bulls landed Zach LaVine and Markkanen, hadn’t gone through, the Timberwolves — Thibodeau was their coach/vice president of basketball operations at the time — were going to draft Markkanen anyway.

And Thibodeau’s not the only one in the Markkanen fan club.

Markkanen’s current coach, Billy Donovan, seems to have pumped new life into the big man after a disastrous season under former coach Jim Boylen.

Donovan sees a player who really took some pride in his craft and is betting on himself.

“I really tried not to at all talk about anything that happened in the past because I wasn’t here, and I thought it was important that we all start off with a clean slate in terms of what we need to do, how we need to play,’’ Donovan said.

“I really tried to focus on what we need for him to do this year.’’

Is he close to the projected ceiling the Bulls once had for him? No. But that mess from last season is gone.

Since coming off an almost two-week layoff in the NBA safety protocol, Markkanen has scored 20-plus points in four of the last nine games, including back-to-back 30-plus outings before Wednesday’s game against the Knicks.

He still loves the three-pointer — maybe a bit too much at times — but his aggressiveness in attacking the rim has gone to the next level.

The latest evidence came late in the third quarter, when Markkanen flushed a nasty two-handed slam to breathe some life into the lethargic Bulls.

The problem was even in outscoring New York 27-16 in the fourth quarter, it still wasn’t enough to climb out of the hole the Bulls dug themselves in.

“We shot the ball miserably,’’ Donovan said. “That happens. You have to find other ways to win. I thought we got dirty and grimy and physical, but it needed to be that way a lot earlier.

“I’m hopeful that [the loss was] a real good learning experience competitively for our guys.’’

That’s Donovan’s hope.

The hope for Markkanen is he continues getting more consistent, the team starts winning and free agency can remain an afterthought until the offseason.

“It’s not the contract thing,’’ Markkanen said of his motivation. “I just feel like I need to prove to myself that I’m still the player that I can be.

‘‘That’s obviously motivating me, but at the same time, the better I play, it’s going to help the team. So that’s what I’m focusing on.’’