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Bulls drop fifth straight as Zach LaVine misses first game of season

The All-Star guard was sidelined with a sprained right ankle, so Lauri Markkanen returned to the starting lineup. The 7-footer had a solid game, but the perimeter defense continued to be an issue in the loss to the Suns.

Zach LaVine missed the game against Phoenix on Wednesday, with a right ankle sprain that didn’t seem to care how important the showdown was for the Bulls.

And rightfully so, as not one eyebrow was raised with the decision, especially because it was the first game the All-Star guard had missed this season.

“Obviously he’s carried a huge load for us during the course of the first half of the season, certainly played at a really elite level,’’ coach Billy Donovan said of the decision to sit LaVine in the eventual 121-116 loss. “I just don’t think physically he’s been right the last couple games.

“I think the starting, the stopping, the planting, the jumping, the explosiveness, I think he’s felt like he’s lost a lot of that. And we just got to help him try to get that back. I don’t know how long it will be.’’

With LaVine down – as well as Garrett Temple (hamstring) and Coby White (neck) – that also meant yet another opportunity for Lauri Markkanen.

Opportunities that could be running out with the Bulls (19-27).

It’s been a strange season for the fourth-year forward. In reality, it’s been a strange four seasons. The 7-footer is part unicorn, part enigma, part ceiling-never-reached. And in a handful of months, the restricted free agent could be elsewhere.

After the loss to Phoenix, Markkanen had 26 regular-season games left to not only leave an impression with his current organization, but the entire Association.

Considering he lost his starting job on Monday, and was only back with that first group because of an injury, it’s not exactly screaming investment worthy.

Markkanen, however, was at least trying to change some minds. He looked aggressive in finishing with 16 points, especially in the first half, but it was nice to also see him grab 10 rebounds. It was only the second time this season Markkanen has reached double-digits in that category.

Still, even with Markkanen’s double-double, as well as Nikola Vucevic finishing with 24 points and 10 rebounds, there wasn’t enough on the perimeter to slow down Phoenix’s backcourt. Chris Paul finished with 19 points and 14 assists, while Devin Booker was a headache all night, hitting the 45-point mark on 17-for-24 shooting.

That included a dagger of a layup with 34.1 seconds left that put the Suns (33-14) up five.

Another lesson for rookie Patrick Williams, who was matched up on Booker a good chunk of the game.

“I thought Patrick really worked,’’ Donovan said of the assignment. “I thought Booker had a big night because he hit all his mid-range jump shots. I thought Patrick battled him. It was all off the dribble. With a player like that you’re going to have to live with a lot of things.’’

True, but Patrick Williams wanted the finger pointed directly at himself.

“For sure it was tough,’’ Williams said of defending Booker. “He’s a tough-shot taker, tough-shot maker. In the second half I kind of upped the physicality, but by then he was already comfortable. That’s on me. He had 45 [Wednesday]? Yeah, that’s on me.’’

As for Markkanen, there’s still improvements Donovan obviously wants to see from him.

The trade deadline obviously changed a lot. In bringing in two bigs, it meant looking for the best matchup combinations. After one game, Donovan felt it was Vucevic starting alongside Thad Young. That sent Markkanen to the bench temporarily.

“I feel like we’re all competitors and you always want to start,’’ Markkanen said of that decision. “I trust Billy. I mean I’m really not gonna do anything that’s gonna harm the team. Like I said, disappointing personally but it is part of it and just I’m gonna do whatever I can do to help the team and control what I can control.’’

What he can control is being that third scoring option, and more importantly, just be consistent. Any questions or concerns about that? Markkanen knows where he can go. Donovan understands Markkanen’s contract situation, but also what’s important for the team.

“Listen, these guys are all human, and they’re men, and there’s obviously a lot of money on the line for all these guys, I understand that,’’ Donovan said. “He’s never really spoken to me about any of that [contract] stuff. He’s been more of the mindset of what can he do to help the team, and he’s really been a great guy as it relates to that. I’ve always told him that if he needs to come to me and talk to me about things or things that may be on his plate or on his mind that he feels that he needs to express, that I was always available to talk to him, and he’s never really done that.’’