It's only preseason, but after getting outworked in their first preseason game against Houston, the Bulls responded with a 104-91 win against the Rockets where Zach LaVine led the way in scoring and Coby White looked much more comfortable playing in more minutes.
That's one in a row.
It wasn't impressive and it wasn't a blueprint for what's to come. And it wasn't even a lead when the Rockets were playing their regulars. But the Bulls Sunday rebounded—and shot snd defended better—after a stumbling start in the opening preseason game to defeat the Houston Rockets 104-91.
Zach LaVine was terrific with 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists with one turnover in 27 minutes. Coby White was much better, though only a 5.56 out of 10 on the demanding Coby-meter, his harsh self evaluation system. He had 20 points and five assists with four turnovers. White and LaVine combined to make seven of 14 three pointers.
Rookie Patrick Williams had 13 points, but it was deceiving as Williams in his second pro game was passive on offense the first three quarters when the Rockets behind John Wall's 21 points led 79-73. With White and Williams and a thinned out Bulls second unit overwhelming a Rockets third unit, the Bulls with a 31-12 fourth quarter pulled away to win easily. It wasn't so much the result because it is preseason, though post game questions are less accusatory after a win. But that the Bulls responded, unlike the Friday opener mess, with the "force" the coaches like to talk about, the effort and the interest in competing was a relief. After complaining about not being able to play for nine months, the Bulls Friday seemed to extend it for another day.
Their alarms finally went off Sunday night in the United Center as White drew multiple charges on Wall, Daniel Gafford has a pair of blocks, the Bulls were plus-10 rebounding and held the Rockets to 34.5 percent shooting and half as many threes compared with the first game.
"We physically competed a lot better," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "We got really, really hurt the first game against Houston on drives, on the three point line. We didn't play with any level of force and physicality. We spent a lot of time the last day or so talking about competing and playing with a level of force and a thrust better than we did the first night against Houston. I think we did that tonight. I think now we've got to look at the tactical part, the schematic part. I think we took a step in the right direction, but I think there's a lot for us to clean up. I felt like the biggest thing we tried to clean up last game was just us competing at a higher and more physical level than we did. I think there's a lot of execution things that we can clean up on both ends of the floor."
Likely having to do with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
The two oft-injured inside players have lumbered through both games, often behind the play and seeming to let it affect their offense. Carter finally made a three, now one of nine in the two games, as Markkanen put up a one for 10 shooting Sunday. They're now a combined 10 for 38 and the most to embrace the "just preseason" mantra.
"Obviously the shot wasn't falling," said Markkanen. "I thought I had good looks. I was focusing on the defensive end and I thought we did a better job competing and rebounding. So I'm not worried about the shot. It's a process and we're still at the beginning and just getting better every day. I can only speak for myself, at least. I was nervous like I was in my rookie year going into that first game after nine months. So first half you're just thinking about everything and just then you're kind of half a step late."
It's certainly too soon for any definitive judgments. Though Donovan said he was pleased with Markkanen's play, that Markkanen remained engaged in the game and competed. Though Donovan did say at his opening media conference he does not criticize players. Donovan also said despite Carter's continuing small sample shooting issues that Carter is a good shooter and should even have attempted more threes.
Coby White finished with 20 points and 5 assists in the Sunday night preseason win
There is that confidence building factor to Donovan's approach, though it should be somewhat easier Wednesday and Friday in Oklahoma City against hardly anyone who we've heard of compared with Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon. The regular season then begins for the Bulls Dec. 23.
The other issue which is going to be a regular occurrence for Bulls and the entire league is the Where's Waldo factor of players disappearing for no apparent reason. The league is not generally revealing specific information on players with virus issues, and Sunday several Bulls players who were expected to play were listed at the last minute as absent for personal reasons. Free agent acquisition Garrett Temple did reveal last week he has Covid-19, and Thad Young and Denzel Valentine were out with different injuries. Then Sunday Noah Vonleh, Devon Dotson, Tomas Satoransky and Luke Kornet were listed as not with the team for personal reasons. There was no additional explanation. So Ryan Arcidiacono was the first guard off the bench and Zach Norvell Jr. played the entire fourth quarter and led the team with a 20 plus/minus rating. Cristiano Felicio in the fourth quarter led the team in rebounds and assists.
"There's going to be different things that are going to pop up," said Donovan. "We have to be very, very flexible. I think we had talked a little bit about you're not going to be able to play in a rotation 15 guys but how can you keep guys prepared and ready? Things happen during the course of the season. And guys have to keep themselves ready. I give Cris a lot of credit tonight playing the last six, seven, eight minutes and keeping himself ready after sitting over there for over two hours. He came in and was professional and did a really good job. I give him a lot of credit for staying engaged. We're going to need all of our players to do that because you may not know what happens from day to day."
LaVine and Wall again stood apart, as they did in the first game, LaVine with 13 first quarter points with such ease as to believe he could do that every quarter. White recovered on Wall as the game went on, though Wall in a remarkable recovery of his own from injuries had 11 points in the first quarter as Houston led 31-30. It was another high scoring opponents' quarter as the Bulls front line didn't react well, though there was more help this time and good activity on the offensive boards. Defenders continued to play off Carter and Williams didn't much look for offense. He played off the bench his one year in college, in part, because he wasn't always aggressive offensively. In 13 first half minutes, Williams attempted one shot, though he had three steals. LaVine had 20 points in the half in 18 minutes
Houston led 56-53 at halftime as the Bulls reserves played somewhat faster than the starters, getting into transition more frequently. LaVine got the Bulls going in the third quarter with passing, setting up back to back White and Otto Porter Jr. threes among four assists in the quarter. Carter let out a "finally" exclamation when a corner three went in. Williams stumbled, missing three of four attempts with a pair of turnovers as White's scoring carried the team through the third quarter until the fourth quarter rout with a 16-0 run. Houston scored three points in the first eight and a half minutes of the fourth quarter. Williams did display that soft shooting touch with a three and three of seven in the fourth.
"There's sometimes where we get a little bit like deer in the headlights, like the first game. Houston came out and we didn't really respond well," LaVine noted. "That's going to happen throughout the season. We'll get better with that. Just try to compete throughout the game. I think the whole thing about us is competing. We should be one of the harder playing teams out there. That will keep us in each and every game. Just continue to get in this rhythm, continue to learn the offense and get ready for a season that nobody's ready for, essentially. We're all on the same playing field with the restrictions and the no fans. We're going to need everybody to be involved.
"The preseason games are going to help us because we haven't played in nine months. I think that showed our first game," LaVine acknowledged. "Obviously we're going to try and get better with every game, but at the end of the day it's still preseason. We've just got to build and practice over these next couple of games and try and get better. I think this year you're definitely going to see a more competitive and well rounded team. We haven't been the best team over the last couple of years, obviously, so we've got to go out there and change it."
Hey, .500 already. It's a start.