The Bulls for much of this season have been walking an NBA high wire, trying to balance competitive ambition with developmental necessity. Friday against the Houston Rockets, the Bulls lost their balance in a 115-94 defeat in which they trailed by 29 points after three quarters. The Bulls slipped into ninth place in the Eastern Conference with their season high fourth consecutive loss as they try to avoid a late season fall.
“We’re obviously trying to do everything we can to compete to win,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “But at the same time we’ve got some young guys we want to get on the floor and see what we’ve got; talked about that a lot these last couple of weeks since we made the trade. It’s a balance. We want to get them out there and see how they play and then make the decision on what our rotation is going to look like in the second half.
“Obviously when you have a game like this, when you have a skid going on like we do you have to look at everything,” Hoiberg added. “We’ll get back to the practice court tomorrow, put a plan together and see how it affects the rotation going into the Boston game Sunday.”
And so the Bulls step carefully, one foot in front of the other, one game at a time and without a playoff safety net through this dangerous and difficult part of the schedule that may well determine where they land.
The Bulls got 21 points from Dwyane Wade, all in the first half in his return to the lineup from a quad injury. Wade played seven scoreless minutes after halftime with one shot. Jimmy Butler finished with 16 points. He and Wade were the only Bulls with more than five points at halftime. Cameron Payne had 11 points, though all in the fourth quarter when Wade, Butler and Robin Lopez didn’t play.
The Bulls fell to 31-34 and now in a tie for ninth place with streaking Miami, which has the league’s best record the last two months. The Bulls are in Charlotte Monday. The Hornets are just two games behind the Bulls and are coming off a 40-point win over an Orlando team the Bulls lost to Wednesday. The Rockets, third in the Western Conference, are 45-21 with MVP candidate James Harden, who had 19 points and 13 assists. Ryan Anderson had 21 points and the Rockets launched 47 threes, making 15. The Bulls got lured into that game and attempted a franchise record 39 threes, making nine, for 23 percent.
“Some of those we rushed and we got into playing their game a little bit,” said Hoiberg. “That got them some transition baskets. A lot of those were at the end as well in garbage time (the Bulls were five of 27 through three quarters).”
It, essentially, was over by then in yet another negative turnaround, this one more stunning as the Bulls went from leading by 13 points late in the first quarter to trailing by 31 late in the third quarter. It came with a numbing 33-2 Rockets run in just nine minutes from late in the second quarter to 5:21 left in the third.
“We were playing against a team, their goal is to shoot 60 threes a night,” said Wade. “They shot (almost) 50. We just didn’t do a good enough job in transition, like we hadn’t all year. This team puts points on the board; that’s what they do. Don’t score enough with them you’ll be in trouble and we didn’t score enough with them.”
The Rockets after scoring the last nine points of the first half to take a 56-49 lead made five threes and had three fast break dunks to open the second half against the Bulls overwhelmed starters and the rope was fraying. And though the disparity and altering of lineups has been much debated, it was essentially the Bulls core on the floor since the trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott that took most of the hit when the game was lost.
“I thought we came out of the gate ready to go,” noted Hoiberg about the 33-23 first quarter. “I thought we had great energy. I thought our pace was really good. Dwyane obviously gave us a big lift (with 12 first quarter points on five of five shooting). Then they go on a big run and we tried to get it all back at once. We had four guys crushing the boards, which allowed them to get out (running for 18 fast break points). Obviously, they are a team that can get going in a hurry and can get hot. They did that and obviously we didn’t respond well.”
So now it remains how to respond for the Bulls.
“It’s a part of where we are at; it’s no secret,” said Wade. “We are a team preparing for the future and also trying to make the playoffs. So you are going to take some lumps some nights and some nights you are going to win some games and look good. We’ll figure out a way to try to bounce back against tough Boston and Charlotte back to back, and see what happens.”
The Bulls used the regular starting lineup with Wade, Butler and Lopez along with Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant. Hoiberg made a quick change to Michael Carter-Williams, who was DNP two of the last three games, to defend Harden with Butler picking up an early foul. Hoiberg, the same as Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, used nine players in the first quarter. The Bulls shot 60.9 percent as the Rockets were missing nine of 12 threes.
Hoiberg intimated he’s been using the first half to settle on second half rotations. But again the start of the second quarter, as has frequently happened lately, wiped out the Bulls momentum with all reserves on the floor. Houston opened with six straight points and Joffrey Lauvergne and Denzel Valentine were yanked. The Bulls still were holding onto a 49-47 lead with 2:58 left in the first half after a Wade three-point play. But Harden then found the range for a pair of threes while Wade missed three, and the Rockets blasted off the second half and were out of sight for the night within minutes.
It wasn’t exactly fireworks in the Bulls locker room this time as Wade and Butler said they are just players.
“I can’t go and say what coach should do,” said Butler. “That’s what he’s there for. I think everybody in this locker room has to go out and play ball, hoop to the best of our abilities. We can’t control the lineups, the rotation. That’s not us.”
Wade was asked about whether he should be playing with so many young players.
“Not going to go there,” said Wade with a smile, one of the few of the night. “I’m not getting in trouble no more. Not going to do it. I sit in the locker room. I have a jersey, I don’t wear a suit; it’s not my job. My job is to play and try to get confidence (for teammates) and lead along the way. We took a smack tonight. I’ll be there against Boston and try to help lead my guys in the next game. Whoever is on the floor, whatever minutes, try to keep them confident and try to get a win.
“We’re players and we have to play with who is on the basketball floor and just have to be ready,” said Wade. “It’s tough because guys don’t know how many minutes they are going to play. Jerian played two minutes, came out. Mentally, it’s tough for guys as well. When you have younger guys doing that it’s hard to bring them back. But stick with it. We are a team; we win together we lose together no matter who coach puts out there on the floor. Just have to be prepared. I think he’s trying to figure it out. It’s tough for them (coaches) as well, making a move at the deadline and trying to figure out guys, who to play. So we have to take some lumps; it’s a part of it, a part of the youth movement.”
Nikola Mirotic even with 12 players getting in the game during the first half never did play for a second consecutive game. Grant played 12 minutes and missed all five of his shots, all threes. Valentine took eight shots, six of them threes and Paul Zipser was two of six on threes as the young players fell in love with the long ball. Nobody seemed to dig it that much.
The Bulls were outrebounded again, gave up 11 offensive rebounds to the perimeter oriented Rockets and committed 18 turnovers. Plus those 18 fast break points. But Wade and Butler had two of the poorest plus/minus ratings in the game. Zipser had the other. The Bulls attempted just 12 free throws to 32 for the Rockets, again indicating less aggression than a willingness to hoist long shots, which hasn’t been their specialty. Defensive mistakes certainly are more difficult to avoid without roster continuity, but aggressive play, hustle, energy and defensive pressure is in the hands of the beholder.
“I don’t think too many things in life, in this game, are fair,” said Butler about the lineups. “It’s different, difficult (to win and develop). Everybody out there is trying to do the right thing and sometimes it’s a little much, but I guess everyone is learning right now. Hopefully we start winning and end up where we want to be. I just want everybody to stay together in here. At the end of the day, whatever it may be good, bad, we have to have love for one another and keep doing what we are doing.
“We are in here together,” said Butler. “We show up for practice, game, whatever it may be, but everybody is locked in. They made a lot of shots, we turned the ball over, didn’t rebound, game got ugly. We just have to keep playing no matter what your role is. On any given night you have to be a star in that role; it’s tough, but everybody has to be ready. Just have to figure it out. Not too much to say more than that.”