Bulls drop sixth straight with loss to Houston, 118-86

Lauri Markkanen scored 22 points as Bulls fell behind early and never caught up to the Rockets

The beatings keep going on, the beatings keep going on;
Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain;
La de da de de, la de da de da.

Competing was once the rage, uh huh;
History has turned the page, uh huh;
Lauri had 22, but these days winnin' would be a coup;
Yes, the beatings keep going on, the beatings keep going on.

What the Bulls are doing lately perhaps inspires poetry or song. After all, there's bad poetry, bad song, and for the Bulls more bad basketball with Tuesday's lifeless 118-86 loss to the Houston Rockets playing without the resting James Harden.

The Bulls didn't work that hard, either.

Lauri Markkanen did have those 22 points, though just eight after the first quarter when he rammed his elbow trying for a rebound. He would be the only starter to score in double figures as the Bulls didn't compete much, falling behind by 20 points in the second quarter and then by 40 midday through the third quarter.

It continued a discouraging stretch in which the Bulls have lost by more than 30 points in two of the last four games, by more than 20 in three of the last four games and since the All-Star break by at least 15 points in more than half their games The Bulls are 4-13 in that stretch since lineup changes to assess development and now are 24-50 on the season. Houston is 61-14.

"You can see who's going to try to compete through it and fight through tough times," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We have to move, we have to cut and it has to be with a lot more purpose than with what we're doing right now. I felt we had a couple of really good days with practice and our movement and then you get out in the game and times get tough and we stop it. That's on me. I have to get us better and get us to continue to play through the tough times more than we're doing right now."

It's always nice when the coach takes the blame for his players, but there's just not much Hoiberg can do now with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine out, and perhaps for the rest of season the way things are going. Markkanen has been in and out since a return from back problems.

Antonio Blakeney is out for the season with a wrist injury. Cristiano Felicio started, but left after the first half with a back problem. Robin Lopez remained out to accommodate the roster analysis.

The weight of it all seems to be too much lately as the Bulls have lost six straight, most badly, after a nice stretch in which even with Lopez and Justin Holiday sitting out the Bulls won four of seven. Of course, then there was outside criticism about that since some suggested the Bulls were hurting themselves for the post season draft positioning by winning too many games.

They are no longer, though the long periods of uncompetitive play are concerning.

"It teaches you lessons for the long haul," said Bobby Portis, who has excelled despite the losing team stretch and had 11 points and eight rebounds off the bench. "Obviously we got beat bad, but you can look back on this in a couple of years when we're the team that does it. We're taking our whopping and hopefully we'll learn from it."

The Bulls got 12 points from Denzel Valentine and some hopeful signs with 10 points and 12 rebounds from Noah Vonleh and 12 points in 18 minutes from newly signed shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick scored 10 of those points in the fourth quarter after the Bulls trailed by 30 after three, but he demonstrated that ability to score he showed primarily in parts of three seasons with the Nets.

Kilpatrick, 28, undrafted in 2014 out of Cincinnati, mostly has bounced around the G-league and five NBA teams, having his best run with the Nets. He even averaged 13.1 points in 70 games with the Nets in the 2016-17 season, though as often happens with undrafted players without guaranteed contracts, as teams signed players he proved most expendable.

Kilpatrick even had 38 points and 14 rebounds in an overtime game against the Clippers in 2016 and a year later was released when the Nets acquired Jahlil Okafor. He then was with the Bucks and Clippers earlier this season and about to join the Celtics when he signed with the Bulls. He's been an inconsistent three-point shooter and a serviceable defender with good length at 6-4. He has a non-guaranteed contract with the Bulls that enables them to include him in a trade.

And so the experiment continues.

This one wasn't too fair even with Rockets starters Harden and Clint Capela not playing. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, and Chris Paul was back from injury and ran the active Houston offense with exacting precision like he was in mission control. It was the Rockets' 10th straight win and 27th of 28.

Paul had 13 points, 10 assists and four steals, and the passing and movement of the Rockets' players was contagious as much as it was stagnant and indifferent for the Bulls. The Rockets with their woolly shooting game launched 57 threes, but they also had 28 assists. In many possessions, the Rockets made five and six passes like baseball players throwing a strikeout around the bases. By contrast, the Bulls rarely make more than one pass before a shot, and often the guy who'll give up a shot to get a teammate a better one is Markaknen. And he's the only one who should not be doing that.

The Bus ended up with 17 assists in the game, but midway through the third quarter as they fell behind 83-43, they still had just five assists. The Rockets often had more passes per possession than the Bulls had assists in the half.

"We obviously got very stagnant out there; their switching bothered us," said Hoiberg. "We finally caught a little rhythm late in the third, obviously way too late. But, that's what it's got to be for 48 minutes if we stand any chance. They are just playing with such a high level of confidence. They space the floor so well and are shooting from all over. It puts you in such a tough position. They are competing and playing at an unbelievable level right now. They're fun to watch, but no fun to play against."

There wasn't much to enjoy about Tuesday for the Bulls.

They got behind right away 14-5 with the Rockets making a trio of threes. Markkanen was very good, going inside and into the post to score. It was the one strategy the Bulls had a chance with against Houston with Capela out and Nene starting and then not playing much.

Markanen had one of his best stretches of the season with 12 of the Bulls first 14 points and even a chase down block and the deficit still in single digits when he exited. The Bulls trailed 31-23 after one quarter and without Harden, perhaps they might make it competitive.

The Rockets quickly go to a small lineup with shooters, which is their game. It's not the Bulls game with the likes of Markkanen, Felicio, Vonleh and Portis.  The Bulls have to slow it up, get inside, post up, take advantage of mismatches against a team like the Rockets. Make it an ugly game. Well, it was an ugly game.

The Rockets bait you into playing like they do, like the Golden State Warriors do, fast, wide open and fun. More fun when you can shoot and are willing to pass, traits with which the Bulls struggle.

But the Bulls fell for it.

They began trying to match the Rockets with threes after Portis passed out of a double team to Kilpatrick for an easy layup to start the second half. The Bulls were within six. Eighteen minutes later they were within 40.

It was an amazing second quarter in which the Rockets attempted 19 three pointers. They really weren't making that many, but the main point is they were tricking the Bulls into trying to match them. The Bulls attempted 11 threes in the second quarter, missing nine, and the Rockets had them. You don't beat them at their game. The Bulls also tried things they shouldn't that the Rockets could, like Paul connecting on through the legs and behind the back passes for scores while the Bulls messed up a three-on-one break when Valentine tried to pass over his shoulder and behind his back on the run.

Do what the coach says; not what the other guys do

Houston led 60-39 at halftime with Gordon already with 24 points and six threes; the entire Bulls team had five threes by then.

What was curious was how the Bulls talked so much about the way the Rockets switching on defense was troubling. What was troubling was that it was troubling because just about every team, including the Bulls, does it almost all the the time these days, and so many of those switches had guards defending Markkanen or Portis. And then someone launched a three.

"They disrupted us a lot on the offensive end and that affected us during the game," said Hoiberg. "It's tough when a team switches one through five and you can't get up a shot. They (also) take a lot of threes and get a lot of offensive rebounds and kick outs."

See, Mike D'Antoni always said he liked defense, too.

The Bulls got a bit going late in the third quarter thanks mostly to Gerald Green missing several threes among the eight of nine he missed in the game. Somehow the Rockets missed 39 threes and still scored 118 points. The Bulls best defense late in the game was to hand the ball to Green and hope to get a long rebound for a runout.

"If you don't have the one iso player on your team that can pretty much get you a bucket at any time, it's pretty tough," said Valentine. "We're the team that doesn't have someone like that, that guy, and we're trying to figure it out."

And the beatings keep going on.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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