Bulls get stunned by young Rockets, fall to 12-7

Despite the returns of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Caruso, Houston hit 17 threes and scored 59 points from the bench as the Bulls fell 118-113.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Chicago, we've got a problem.

For the the Apollo 13 astronauts, it was the Main B bus undervolt, a mysterious issue with the electrical system. Similarly for the Bulls Wednesday in an improbable 118-113 loss to the league's worst team, the Houston Rockets and their 15-game losing streak, there was a comparable failure of energy. Among other various elements. They should be as fortunate to regain control of their ship.

"I tried to call a quick timeout (to start the third quarter)," noted Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "I think it was 10:30 (actually 10:09) on the clock. I could see the disposition. We just were lethargic; they were more aggressive and you could kind of see it. We just came out and kind of messed around with the game and before you know it we're down by 10. We're a very good team, but we're not so good that we don't show up in a quarter in an NBA game and expect to win.

"That's focus and concentration," Donovan emphasized. "The way we came out was (lack of) focus and concentration. I'm a big believer in the best players and the best team are internally motivated; they are not externally motivated. They don't go out there and look at the scoreboard or someone says something to them and that excites them. There's got to be an internal drive. We have shown signs of doing that. But we haven't shown signs of doing it consistently enough."

There were bad losses, like Monday by 32 points to the Indiana Pacers. But those happen. The Pacers are a good, veteran team with at least one All-Star. But then not only coming off a game like that, but against little more than a developmental team that not only now is 2-16, but is the worst team in the NBA in almost every major offensive category, last in offense and shooting, last in turnovers, 29th in assists, worst in point differential.

And they're not even playing their NBA veterans with John Wall relegated to looking-for-a-trade status and free agent acquisition from the Bulls Daniel Theis suddenly out of the rotation. And then minutes into the game, Rockets star rookie Jalen Green left with an injury after scoring 11 first quarter points. It as 32-30 Bulls after one quarter moving to a comfortable 64-55 at halftime.

There were some Bulls specials, Ayo Dosunmu with a driving baseline facial dunk, Lonzo Ball with a full court, Wes Unseld flick for a Zach LaVine layup, the Bulls closing the half with seven straight points amidst multiple Rockets misfires.

It was only a matter of time, right?

Ayo Dosunmu dunks over Houston's Alperen Segun in the first half against the Rockets.

Ayo Dosunmu dunks over Houston's Alperen Segun in the first half against the Rockets.

But there's a troublesome Bulls trend developing about third quarter play, something that isn't much troubling for good teams. At now 12-7, are the Bulls not as good as they thought? And have been lately proclaimed? Or is it yet another adjustment with Nikola Vucevic returning Wednesday after missing two weeks with Covid and Coby White also settling into the rotation coming off surgery?

The Rockets shockingly outscored the Bulls 35-18 in the third quarter, the fifth time in the last seven games the Bulls have been immediately after halftime. What, no orange slices?

The Bulls now have lost three of their last five, which isn't exactly time for panic. Maybe not even concern for now.

"Concerned is an iffy word," said Alex Caruso in response to a concern. "If we don't pay attention to it and do things to get better then it's a concern. The NBA season is really long. We got off to a good start and now we're kind of hitting that second wave of games on the schedule. And we've got to do a better job of being locked in and realizing every game we have to give the same level of energy and attention to detail to win games."

Caruso did after missing one game with a sore wrist, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter in the Bulls suddenly desperate rush to erase three not so great sections. But it wasn't quite enough amidst a disputed possible four-point play the Bulls didn't get. And even without that, Zach LaVine was shooting a free throw to tie the game with 3:32 left.

He missed, but surely a team like these Bulls would steal one now; it's what the good teams do, true?

Instead, this collection of mostly young, athletic and mostly unknown kids along with Eric Gordon scored on four of their next five possessions and survived three turnovers in the last two minutes for their first win in more than a month.

Talk about getting the stuffing knocked out of you, getting mashed and squashed on a night that should have been gravy but became a turkey. Not such a happy Thanksgiving on the way for the Bulls to Orlando Friday and what's not so much their happiest place on Earth.

"We have to find a way to come out in those third quarters and play with more intensity and focus," seconded Vucevic, who played a bit more than expected with 26 minutes and fouled out with 14 points and 13 rebounds. "I thought tonight first half we were playing well. And then came out flat in the third quarter and let them do what they want and they got going. We have to establish our way of playing on the other team."

LaVine led the Bulls with 28 points and 11 in the fourth quarter and Ball had 19 points, making five of seven three pointers, 17 of those points in the first half. It was another difficult game for DeMar DeRozan with 17 points on six of 19 shooting.

Opponents seem to be scheming mostly for DeRozan after his scorching start to the season as well as challenging the Bulls to shoot more threes, where they have been most reluctant. Perhaps that changes with the return of Vucevic and White. and Caruso finally making some threes, three of five against the Rockets after coming in shooting 29 percent on threes for the season.

The Rockets played some zone, though not as much as Indiana did earlier this week. Though Pacers coach Rick Carlisle is known for frequenting the zone more than any other current NBA coach. What teams have begun to do is crowd the lane by forming a tighter shell. With more defenders and an octopus of hands, the Bulls and particularly DeRozan with his mid range game have been forced into more turnovers, a slower game and more difficult shots.

Javonte Green rises up for the jam past Houston's Christian Wood.

Javonte Green rises up for the jam past Houston's Christian Wood.

Perhaps the most crucial part of the game was late in the third quarter after the Rockets took their first lead since late in the opening quarter at 76-75 with 3:45 left in the third.

We've seen this so much to start the season, an uncanny DeRozan consistently maneuvering inside for pure jump shots, a fake, fake, fake and if the defender is still there a subtle bump for space and an uncannily smooth release. And it started that way again with DeRozan going full court to get a three-point play and then a pair of free throws to tie the game at 82. But he had a turnover and a pair of misses in his next three possessions sandwiched around a long Vucevic miss, the Rockets scoring eight straight for a surprising 90-82 lead going into the fourth quarter.

"I think our guys got frustrated the way things were going," said Donovan. "Attention to detail, focus concentration plays we didn't make."

Though when Caruso started the fourth quarter with a pair of scores on drives and a cut, it appeared time for the Rockets kids to lose their kick, which they seemed to in a mess of possessions, six consecutive missed field goals and a turnover, three of six missed free throws. The Rockets finally made the first field goal of the quarter four and a half minutes in on a Kevin Porter three. And the Rockets looked up and they still were leading 96-88.

"It's really a collective lack of a sense of urgency from us," said Caruso. "Even coming off the bench, I don't think we've done a good job bringing the level of detail and attention that it takes to win ballgames in the NBA."

It had been a brutal Bulls sequence even with DeRozan and Vucevic joining the reserves, seven empty possessions in eight with three turnovers, including one of the most egregious on an eight-second backcourt call when the Bulls lollygagged the ball forward.

No one play, especially in an NBA game, is that determinant. Though it was symptomatic both of the torpor Donovan believed he witnessed and the lack of style in their play that was supposed to feature speed, daring, defense and ball movement. The Bulls finished with 26 assists after 17 in the first half.

Nikola Vucevic had 14 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes in his return to the floor.

Nikola Vucevic had 14 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes in his return to the floor.

"I think our guys, we get stuck a little bit and get away from what works," said Vucevic. "Again, we also have players who really are great iso players. So we just have to find our balance. Tonight our shotmaking wasn't always there at times; it happens. And there are games it's going to work well. So it's just finding the balance of doing what we need to do offensively. A lot of times those ios can come out of us executing. Also, part is still learning to play with each other and guys coming in and out; we're trying to figure that part as well."

The Bulls did make a run midway through that fourth quarter, Caruso with a three and then Ball with what seemed like another that would have brought the Bulls within 99-97 with 5:13 left. Ball's three ball hit the rim, bounced up and in. He bounced, too. Ball fell as the shot was wandering around the rim and was called for a foul. Donovan challenged and the officials ruled after studying replay that Ball had kicked or interfered with the defender for an offensive foul.

Navigating the narrow tight rope that stretches over the chasm of league penalties, Donovan didn't say the officials were incorrect. He did say he was confused.

"It was such a big play; that's why I challenged it," Donovan explained. "Could have cut the lead to one (with a foul call). I have to be honest, I couldn't quite understand it. I was told he shot it and came down and fell down and kind of grabbed the guy. I didn't see that. As they were explaining it to me, it made zero sense to me. I'm not saying it made zero sense to me because I don't agree with what they said, but the way they explained it to me and what I was able to see didn't make sense. I'm not saying they were wrong, but I don't know how you make a call like that based on what I saw."

Still, Donovan accepted the larger picture of once again the Bulls losing focus. Does anyone know where the horizontal hold is?

Even after that Ball of a disappointment, Caruso made another three among his five of six shooting in the quarter, and Vucevic made a three. Gordon missed a three and LaVine was fouled with a chance to tie the game at the line. He made one of two, and then it was 9-4 Who Are Those Guys until Caruso made yet another three to get the Bulls within 111-108 with 47.7 seconds left.

After which a trapping Bulls lost Garrison Mathews—yes, that Garrison Mathews—in the corner for a three and a 114-108 Houston lead with 25.5 seconds left. LaVine spun a three in and out before the Rockets made just enough free throws for the Bulls to begin to discover that turkeys this time of year aren't as rare as everyone has been saying.

Got a question for Sam?

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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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