This season for the Bulls was to be about change, and not nickels and dimes. Transitional change with first round draft pick Lauri Markkanen and second year point guard Kris Dunn emerging. They have started that process nicely, even with Monday's 116-107 loss to the Houston Rockets with 19 points and eight assists from Dunn and 16 points and eight rebounds for Markkanen.
Bobby Portis with 22 points off the bench led the Bulls back from a first-month-of-the-season type Bulls 21-point deficit to a brief third quarter lead. Denzel Valentine had 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
But even without injured James Harden, the Rockets were too dynamic for the Bulls with 20 of 54 three pointers—consider Houston in the first three seasons threes were allowed averaged about 200 attempts per season—took a double digit lead late in the third quarter and maintained it the rest of the game.
Eric Gordon and Chris Paul each had 24 points for Houston and recently signed Gerald Green 22 off the bench. Trevor Ariza had his 18 points on six threes.
"We got a little stone faced out there when they hit us with that haymaker early in the game," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "It was a little bit of awe with them coming out and hitting shots. Our closeouts got a little less urgent. Then we put a second group in and I thought the game turned. We climbed ourselves out of that big hole, but the problem with that is you spend so much energy getting to that point. I give our guys credit for continuing to go out and battle and find a way to take a lead. Then we didn't finish the third quarter well and they stayed up pretty much double digits the rest of the way. You can't come out and get off to that kind of start."
So the Bulls close the first half of the season 14-27, substantially better than expected by most observers, and about to experience their third—or fourth—major change of the season.
There was the start and altercation between Portis and Nikola Mirotic, the latter who was out Monday with flu, the 3-20 start and then the return of Mirotic and seven straight wins and 10 of 12 before this current stretch with five losses in the last six games and a few looking November-like.
But now perhaps comes Zach LaVine. The Bulls after meeting Monday with LaVine and his representatives are expected to disclose Tuesday the schedule for a LaVine return from knee surgery, which could even be this week or next. Then next week, the trading season signals perhaps big bucks as the Bulls consider possibilities for their future roster. Mirotic and Robin Lopez are names that often have been mentioned by teams as potential trade targets because of the Bulls changes.
"It's going to be an adjustment," acknowledged Dunn about anticipated changes. "I feel everyone has to be positive and stick together and stay focused and keep playing our game."
Will there be new starters and a new rotation by next week?
As the great Chinese philosopher said, "If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."
It didn't seem like a good place for the Bulls, and so the journey continues.
"The expectation for this year's team was to come out and compete at a high level every time we step on the floor," Hoiberg said in assessing the first half of the season. "I was really pleased with our off season, thought we were playing at a high level with great movement and pace. Obviously took a step back with some of the things that happened to us right before our first game (fight). So we started out the season in a difficult fashion with a 3-20 record. But I've been really pleased with how we've gone out and competed. We've been very competitive pretty much every time we've stepped on the floor. Understanding there were going to be some high and lows with a young team, but as I look at the progression of Kris Dunn and what Lauri continues to show and get better every time he steps on the floor and with some of our other guys making impact and not even seeing Zach LaVine yet, its been exciting to see what this team can do. And when we go out and play the right way, which is unselfish basketball with great pace, we can hang with anybody in the league. So continue to take steps in the right direction, continue to get better and I am confident our team will do that."
The Bulls did make it a game with the Rockets with Portis' 11-point second quarter with some muscle flexing after a dunk and two of 11 Rockets threes in the quarter. That got the Bulls within 60-55 at halftime.
"I just tried to bring energy, take the shots available to me; I also tried to get the crowd involved," said Portis. "I feel like we've come together as a team, made strides the whole year getting better, knowing each other's games and tendencies, where guys like to shoot the ball. Each and every day we push each other and try to be the best team possible and I feel we've progressed and we are going to keep progressing."
The Bulls with Dunn recovering from a slow start looked like they might steal this one back, taking a 66-63 lead three minutes into the second half.
The Bulls have given up at least 116 points now in five straight and at last 110 in six straight, high totals that go back decades. Though this also is the first time the Bulls are playing this way with record three-point shooting attempts, on pace to attempt more than 2,500 and with two and maybe three players breaking the all time franchise record for three pointers made.
"We're definitely improving," said Dunn. "The chemistry is there. When we were in that losing stretch, we didn't have good chemistry. No one really knew their roles. We had a lot of things going on. Then once Niko came back and everybody was fully healthy, everybody established their role and the chemistry started to get a little better. We started to switch things."
You know, change. Change your clothes, your mind, your game. Your roster?
The Bulls hit another of those lulls with some quick jump shots and bang, bang, bang, kakaka-boom came the Rockets dropping three ball bombs and it was too much for the Bulls even as they made a dozen threes.
"They get 'em up as much as the Warriors do," noticed Dunn. "We kept giving ourselves chances to come back. I think that was like the moral of the game. We kept knocking on the door, and they just kept hitting two threes every time we got close."
We all know what's permanent. It's change. Is it time?
* * * * *
Could Fred Hoiberg be the reason Mike D'Antoni still doesn't have an NBA championship?
Probably not, but D'Antoni sure wanted Hoiberg for his 2005-06 Phoenix Suns, and Hoiberg sure wanted to be part of that Seven Seconds or Less shooting Suns who augured the modern NBA spread court and three-point shooting. Consider that the Suns weren't taken seriously then shooting about 2,000 threes that season. The Golden State Warriors attempted more than 2,500 threes last season and D'Antoni's 28-11 Rockets are on pace to attempt more than 3,000 this season.
Hoiberg playing what would be his final season in the NBA in 2004-05 in Minnesota led the NBA in three-point shooting at a dizzying 48.3 percent.
"I was really excited to potentially play with Steve Nash in that system," Hoiberg said Monday before the Bulls played Houston. "That was Steve Nash with back to back MVPs. Mike basically told me, ‘If you can run three-point line to three-point line, you can play in my system.' I said, ‘Coach, I can do that.'"
In June 2005, Hoiberg underwent heart surgery to correct an enlarged aortic root.
"I love the way Mike's teams play," said Hoiberg. "After my first heart surgery, I'd basically come to (contract) terms with Phoenix. Their doctor stepped in the next day and said he talked to specialists around the world and said he didn't think there was much risk, but he couldn't guarantee there was none. That was what I was waiting to hear. So I decided to move on to the next phase of my career; it just wasn't in the cards. I did try to model a lot of my system after the way he plays, shoot rim twos and obviously a lot of threes, a lot in transition. He's as good and creative an offensive mind as there ever has been in this game. I do think he's changed the way the game is played with the amount of three pointers shot."
D'Antoni was the final candidate for the Bulls head coaching job in 2008 after deciding to leave the Suns with Steve Kerr becoming general manager. D'Antoni had been coach and general manager after the departure of Bryan Colangelo to Toronto. After serious talks with the Bulls and indications he was interested, D'Antoni elected to take an offer to coach the Knicks. The Bulls then hired Vinny Del Negro.