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Big man Lauri Markkanen scores 10 in season debut, but Bulls fall in Houston

HOUSTON — Bulls big man Lauri Markkanen’s jumper was obviously rusty, and his rhythm was a bit out of step.

None of that seemed to matter to coach Fred Hoiberg, though, because Markkanen was back.

In a bit of a surprise Saturday, the Bulls moved Markkanen’s return up a game, using him off the bench in a 121-105 loss to the Rockets. It was Markkanen’s first game of the season.

‘‘I’ve been waiting for a long time,’’ Markkanen said.

So have the Bulls. And maybe no one more than Hoiberg, who had huge plans for Markkanen heading into the season.

Hoiberg changed a number of offensive sets during the offseason to get the ball into Markkanen’s hands more often. And Markkanen put on 16 pounds of muscle during the offseason, hoping to complement his outside shooting with a better
inside game.

But all of the preparation was set back when Markkanen suffered a badly sprained right elbow early in training camp that sidelined him for the first 23 games of the season.

So while Markkanen didn’t make a big impact in his return — he was 4-for-14 from the field, including 2-for-6 from three-point range, on his way to scoring 10 points — it was a comeback nonetheless.

For the Bulls, who have lost six consecutive games to fall to 5-19, no one was complaining.

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‘‘Everybody is excited to have him back,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘He has a great skill set. He can do a lot on the floor. He demands a lot of attention to hopefully open up some driving lanes for some of our playmakers.’’

That wasn’t the case against the Rockets (11-11), who suddenly are finding the groove they had for most of last season.

‘‘That’s a tough game to come back to when you’re playing a team that switches everything like [the Rockets do],’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘I liked Lauri’s aggressiveness. I liked seeing him going to the hole without any reservation. It was great to have him back out there.’’

Markkanen entered the game with 4:32 left in the first quarter and missed his first jumper long. His first basket was a three-pointer from 28 feet with 14.8 seconds left in the quarter.

Markkanen’s best move of the night, however, came when he dribbled hard to his right and made a swooping layup in the third quarter. It was his only real explosive play of the game.

‘‘No problems with my elbow, so that’s a positive,’’ Markkanen said. ‘‘I was just glad to be out there. I didn’t care who I was playing against.’’

Reigning NBA most valuable player James Harden toyed with Bulls defenders for most of the night on his way to scoring 30 points and handing out seven assists. And while the Bulls showed some fight in cutting their deficit to four points midway through the third quarter, they don’t have enough weapons to threaten many teams down the stretch.

‘‘We’ve still gotta go out there and play,’’ guard Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls with 29 points, said when asked about Markkanen’s return. ‘‘We’re [5-19]. We get one person back, teams are still going to be looking at us like it’s a win.

‘‘We’ve still gotta go out there and compete. We love having Lauri out there, and it’s a great feeling. But we’ve still gotta go out there and compete.’’