Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Rockets - Preseason (12.13.20)

The Bulls and the Houston Rockets get together for a second time to close out a pair of weekend preseason games this evening at the United Center. Fans can catch the action live on both TV and radio (NBC Sports Chicago / 670 The Score / TUDN, Univision Sports Radio 1200AM) starting at 7:00 PM. After this rematch with the Rockets, the Bulls travel to Oklahoma City for another pair of preseason games next Wednesday and Friday against the Thunder.

After a long, nine-month layoff between games due to the coronavirus global pandemic, Friday night's preseason opener for Chicago wasn't anything close to a thing of beauty, as Houston led from the start, running away with a 125-104 victory.

How quickly did things get out of hand, you ask? Well, the Rockets blasted off to a 14-2 start after just three minutes. By the time Chicago burned its first timeout, Houston was up 19-7 with 7:17 remaining in the opening quarter. By halftime the Bulls trailed 68-48, shooting just 41% from the field overall and 26.3% from downtown.

Much like the Bulls, the Rockets also have a new coaching staff this season led by Stephen Silas. A 19-year NBA sideline veteran, Silas landed in Houston after spending the previous two years in Dallas working with Rick Carlisle. There was some belief going into Friday that Houston's offense might change a little under Silas compared to former coach Mike D'Antoni's scheme of firing at will from behind the arc. Well, if this was a true preview for what's in store, not a whole lot is going to change.

Even without the help of All-NBA sharpshooter James Harden, who was left home due to the league's COVID-19 protocols, the Rockets played fast and unselfish, connecting on 24 of 52 3-pointers. Twelve different players hit from downtown, so it's not like teams have to worry about just two or three guys.

Houston finished the evening with 25 assists on 47 made field goals, led by recent addition John Wall, who looked fully healthy and electric, posting a game-high 9 assists to go along with 13 points and 5 rebounds in just under 19 minutes. Wall hadn't been able to play a single game in two years before Friday night because of a series of injuries, but he sure looked like his old self.

As a team, the Rockets were also careful with the ball, turning it over only 5 times compared to Chicago's 20 miscues.

Wall wasn't the only former Kentucky Wildcat to turn back the clock to his pre-injury days. Recent free agent signee DeMarcus Cousins, who two years ago suffered a torn Achilles' and last season torn an ACL during training camp with the Lakers, also looked great, finishing with 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks, hitting 3-of-4 from distance.

Houston sniper Eric Gordon also had a strong game, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

The Bulls return much of the same roster from last season, but as mentioned above, with a new coaching staff directing the action. Key for Chicago will be the overall health of the team, as well as the growth of core players Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.

Chicago's top draft pick, Patrick Williams, will also be an important player in determining how successful the team will be. The 6'8" rookie out of Florida State proved to be the Bulls' silver lining, hitting his first shot as a pro, and went on to post 12 points and 3 rebounds, shooting 5-of-9 from the field in 25 minutes off the bench.

Williams didn't look or act like a wide-eyed rookie. In fact, just the opposite. He was poised and under control and played tough defense, even when he ended up on an island guarding Wall away from the basket. Wall immediately recognized the mismatch and attempted to blow by the rookie with a burst of speed, but Williams met him at the spot and Wall quickly changed his mind and back the ball back out behind the arc to set up a new plan of action.

There were other good signs besides Williams' overall play. Tomas Satoransky also delivered a solid game off the bench, finishing with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists and no turnovers. Coby White shot 5-of-11, including 2-of-4 from downtown, in notching a team-best 15 points to go along with 6 assists. Lauri Markkanen went 3-of-5 from distance for 13 points, and Zach LaVine shot 4-of-8 overall and 2-of-4 from behind the arc to clock in with a dozen points.

The most interesting test this evening for the Bulls will be how the team reacts to getting blown out on their home floor in the opener. To be fair, this is still preseason, and Chicago had to play without veterans Garrett Temple, Denzel Valentine and Thaddeus Young, each of whom are expected to play key roles this season but had to miss Friday due to a variety of ailments. Those three won't see the floor again tonight, but everyone else should play.

After experiencing what Houston did to them the other night, it's pretty clear the Bulls need to turn up the defensive heat, especially at the 3-point arc, as well as close down driving lanes to the rim and assume command the boards at both ends of the floor.

Offensively, the Bulls need to continue to freely pass the ball from player-to-player and side-to-side in search of open shots. They must also be willing to aggressively attack the basket at every opportunity, forcing Houston onto its heels. Chicago is at its best when they play with pace and get out on the break to score easy buckets in transition.

A more focused and aggressive effort at both ends of the floor from the Bulls should keep the game close and exciting down the stretch.