Markkanen-less Bulls win fifth straight, downing the ‘Greek Freak’

MILWAUKEE — Lauri Markkanen missed all the fun again.

Dealing with back issues that have now kept him out the last three games, the Bulls’ rookie forward stayed back in Chicago getting treatment Friday rather than take the 90-minute bus ride north to deal with the 6-11 “Greek Freak.’’

But while the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo has lived up to all the hype of an MVP candidacy through the early part of this season, the night belonged to the hottest team in the Eastern Conference.

Thanks to 27 points from Bobby Portis, the Markkanen-less Bulls (8-20) won their fifth straight game, beating the Bucks 115-109 at the Bradley Center.

But first things first for coach Fred Hoiberg: dismissing the idea that Markkanen’s back issues are becoming a concern for the team.

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“It’s really caution,” Hoiberg said. “The important thing is he continues to get better. He feels better [Friday] than he did [Thursday]. With a day off [Saturday] and another round of treatments, get him back for some, at least, non-contact on Sunday.

“He’s still got some soreness. We just felt it would be counterproductive to put him on a bus with the idea of not playing, sitting there an hour and a half both ways, and then sitting through the game. We felt the smartest thing to do was to leave him back.”

The caution makes sense, but so does the concern: It’s the third time this year that Markkanen has been hampered by his back. It bothered him while he was playing in FIBA EuroBasket this summer, it cost him three preseason games, and now this week.

Had Markkanen been healthy, there’s a good chance he would have been matched up with Antetokounmpo. Instead, that responsibility fell on Nikola Mirotic and Portis, and then David Nwaba in the second half. None of those three did much to slow Antetokounmpo down; he finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds.

Fortunately for the Bulls, the Bucks (15-12) had very few answers for Portis and Mirotic.

Portis was a force early in the fourth quarter, both from the inside and outside. Mirotic, meanwhile, hit a big three-pointer with 2:42 left, then threw up a prayer shot from the baseline with 1:07 left that not only went in but drew a foul. The three-point play gave the Bulls a five-point lead and some fortunate breathing room.

Mirotic, who finished with 22 points, iced the game with two free throws with 13.5 seconds left. The Bulls have improved to 5-0 since his return from injuries sustained in an altercation with Portis in practice on Oct. 17.

Mirotic admitted he’s surprised that he and Portis are not only co-existing but flourishing on the court. That didn’t seem possible a month ago, when Mirotic and his camp wanted Portis traded elsewhere.

“It’s been crazy,” Mirotic said. “Never thought about it. We did play a little bit last year together, but it was not like now.

“We’ve both stepped up. We’ve learned how to play with one another, but we have to give the credit to Fred because Fred is the one putting us in the right spot. From my side, I just wish we continue to do what’s best for the team.”

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com