Bulls face first test with a Sunday preseason rematch against Houston

Billy Donovan will get a chance to see how his team responds to adversity when they take on the Houston Rockets again in a preseason matchup on Sunday night.

Has there ever been a bigger must win game for the Bulls than Sunday's United Center rematch with the Houston Rockets?

"I've always said this," Bulls coach Billy Donovan offered Saturday after what he said was a long film session that may or may not have included Hoosiers clips. "The minute the ball gets thrown up in the air, to me it's about how you handle adversity."

Ding, ding, ding, ding. Warning! Warning! First adversity mention of the season.

"Adversity is one of the greatest teaching tools that we have because generally you improve and get better when things are hard," said Donovan. "When adversity hit last night, we did not respond well enough as a group."

OK, OK, I'm taking a deep breath. No one's back seems to the wall quite yet. Though check back with me Sunday night.

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan

The Bulls in mostly being the fuel that powered the Rockets in Friday's 125-104 Houston victory see them again Sunday night before closing the shortened preseason with a pair of games in Oklahoma City. It was just the team's first game with a new coach in nine months after being left out of the Orlando campus tournament. So it was understandable Bulls players were so happy to be around basketball again that they may have relaxed and watched. You know, like we did.

"I think certainly the way we played yesterday was not how we've worked in training camp at all," Donovan said. "The competitive spirit as a group needed to be better in terms of stopping runs, in terms of finding ways to generate good shots or get stops or a rebound. I didn't think that we helped at all well enough. I thought we didn't really have any rim protection."

Except for, you know, yelling, "Help!"

"We have to be a help orientated team," said Donovan. "And we did not help each other. We left guys out on islands. When there were drives, we didn't pull across and provide any rim protection or physicality at the basket in terms of taking charges or going vertical. I thought the floor was too open. We got driven. From a defensive standpoint, we have to fight harder to get over pick-and-rolls. There's just a lot of things we need to do better. But when it's not going well, I always feel like in four quarter games, 12 minutes is a long time; it's a lot of possessions. You're going to have these moments where you've got to be able to self correct. We kind of fought our way back into the game. I think we were down 11 at the end of the first, but we have to be able to sustain that. And then it went right back up to 20 again. So how we respond in those situations is going to be critical to the growth and development of the team."

Donovan talked about being tougher and fiercer and a lot of those playing harder things you always hear after losses. It was an ugly debut, but it was also predictable given the long layoff teams like the Rockets didn't have. A lot of Bulls fans wanted last season to end, but not getting the chance to restart even for a few weeks is a setback. The NBA should never have put those teams at such a competitive disadvantage. It unfairly unleveled the playing field.

Patrick Williams scored a dozen points in his NBA preseason debut.

Rookie Patrick Williams had an impressive debut and there were some good moments from Zach LaVine, Coby White and Tomas Satoransky, if not enough. Which also raises the question about who are these Bulls.

The Rockets blasted the Bulls, launching 52 threes and landing with 24, and what fun I could have with the Houston word play. No, Houston did not have a problem. Sorry, apologies.

Donovan said it was the Rockets' identity, and that's perhaps the developing archetype for these Bulls. Who are they going to be?

Donovan spoke primarily about defense, and we all know all the coaches always talk about defense. Yes, Mike D'Antoni, too. Everyone can play defense with some effort, if not always better than others. The Rockets, for instance, aren't much concerned with defense as much as their new coach, Stephen Silas, talks about it as well. But they know who they are.

They shoot threes and have half of DeMarcus Cousins based on the guy we saw Friday night. James Harden continues to positively test.

Who are these Bulls going to be? It's perhaps the biggest question for the meticulous Donovan, though working from a deficit also by having basically just met these players. The Bulls did discard the two most disruptive perimeter defenders in Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison. Defense is not what made White and LaVine lottery picks, and not so much Otto Porter Jr. as well. Donovan is pushing the defensive buttons. Can it produce a solid wall or just a facade?

Coby White had 15 points in the preseason opener.

The Bulls Friday seemed to trigger a lot of offense through the interior players, Lauri Markkanan and Wendell Carter as something of a petri dish for offense. Carter didn't shoot well and Markkanen eventually did somewhat, though the larger question may be whether offense can function best that way since playmaking isn't generally their element (35 Houston points off turnovers). So maybe just one of my questions, but we're all working through preseason.

Or perhaps more saliently, should offense be generated more by White and LaVine and let the defense react to them in the sort of way Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum play in Portland? Or even Donovan's teams with Russell Westbrook. Donovan in Oklahoma City seemed to like starting a non scoring guard, like Andre Roberson, Terrence Ferguson and last season Lu Dort. The Bulls don't start that way.

Donovan Saturday was complimentary of Satoransky, last season's point guard starter until White fueled his own rocket ship of a game. It raises another possibility of whether Satoransky should start at point guard with White at shooting guard, LaVine at small forward and Markkanen as a transition center the way Dallas uses Kristaps Porzingis for his shooting. Rookie Williams in already defending multiple positions has shown an ability to be an inside stopper with a nice offensive game. It may not be the Bulls best defensive look, but it would put pressure on the opposing defense with the team's best offensive players going to their strengths.

Though the Bulls probably don't need a complete makeover after one exhibition game. And without three injured/ill regulars, Denzel Valentine, Thad Young and Garrett Temple, who will not be available Sunday. Though no promises after two games.

"With these guys for six practices and one preseason game, I probably don't think it's fair to pass judgement of what these guys are or are not," said Donovan. "These guys have been really, really good workers. They've tried to come every day with energy and enthusiasm. They're trying to work extremely hard. We'll see how we respond. Because clearly the competitiveness and dealing with adversity, dealing with going on a run, having the group together step up and try to shut that down is going to be an identity that you have to build. And if you can't handle adversity in this league, it's really, really tough over a 48-minute period just to expect every minute of every game to go your way. It's how you respond when things aren't going your way."

They're ready now. No, really. Watch.