Why Adam Mokoka was the unsung hero of the Bulls' victory over Mavericks

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Without Zach LaVine, the Bulls improbably toppled the prolific Dallas Mavericks 109-107 on Monday night. Of a litany of noteworthy numbers from the game reigned a 60-19 bench scoring advantage in favor of Chicago — fifty-six of those points came from Coby White (19), Otto Porter Jr. (18), Ryan Arcidiacono (10) and Daniel Gafford (nine). 

Just four came from undrafted rookie swingman Adam Mokoka. Nevertheless, he made his presence felt. 

Luka Doncic’s second-half statline — eight points on 2-for-8 shooting — is evidence enough of that. Mokoka drew primary responsibilities on Doncic down the stretch, logging six-and-a-half of his 18:50 minutes in the fourth quarter, and Doncic failed to make a field goal on two attempts in the period. Mokoka’s been a reliable long-range shooter (40% from deep in 11 games) and end-of-bench mainstay to this point, but his speed, tenacity, balance and strength all jumped off the hardwood in checking Doncic.

“He was big time. He did a great job,” Otto Porter Jr. said. “Adam in a stretch played great defense. Just keeping his hands out. Just being physical and trying to make Luka uncomfortable. And he did that.”

This from a man in Doncic who dropped a 38-point triple double when these teams last met and has made a habit of snatching the souls of opponents far superior to these Bulls.

“I don't think about, like, who I'm guarding,” Mokoka when asked if there’s any special pride in clamping Doncic, before quickly correcting to say: “Well, I'm thinking about the way I can guard him. But I'm really not focused about who he is, the hype and everything. I'm just trying to do my thing, play hard.”

Mokoka added that he identifies with his on-ball defensive ability as much as any part of the game and that he could sense Doncic’s frustration mounting throughout the contest. The Mavericks’ 21-year-old phenom began the game in peak form — tallying 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds on 6-for-12 shooting by halftime — mincing the Bulls’ blitzing pick-and-roll coverages with ease and bruising defenders left and right. Four turnovers and 1-for-5 shooting from deep were blemishes, but he looked well on his way to his 14th triple-double of the season, and the Mavericks to a convincing victory.

The script flipped in a third quarter, a period that’s plagued the Bulls all season. The Bulls outscored the Mavericks 33-17 in the third, holding Dallas to just 43.6% shooting while forcing 13 turnovers in the second half, overall. The marked defensive intensity that produced those figures is a welcome sign for the Bulls after enduring a month of February in which they ranked last in the NBA in defensive rating and opponent field goal percentage.

Mokoka and Shaq Harrison — who also fared admirably enough against Doncic — were at the heart of that effort. As was Thad Young, who logged 35:41 minutes and played the entire fourth quarter.

“It's huge for us,” Young said. “Any time we can beat a team like Dallas with the players they have on their team, it's huge for us. It shows signs and steps that we're going in the right direction.

“It was a true indication of a next-man-up mentality.”

In just Mokoka’s 11th NBA game, he embodied that to a tee. And with the Bulls’ goals likely to skew towards ‘development’ down the stretch of the season, his night should open eyes. Though he's oscillated between the G League and NBA squads all season, continued opportunity is likely in Mokoka's future with the Bulls' wing rotation (sans Kris Dunn and Chandler Hutchison) still in flux.

‘He's what our people said he was,” head coach Jim Boylen said. “He's a tough kid that can make shots and guard people. And he's what you need in this league, positional size that can guard and make an open 3.”

And, at age 21, he’s still learning. If Mokoka turns out to be a diamond in this rough season, remember this night as one of note.

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