Bulls break down defensively, fall to Rockets 133-118

It sounded like Forrest Gump, though Monday’s Bulls 133-118 loss to the high flying adolescent Houston Rockets suggested Holden Caufield, who said. “I don’t even know what I was running for. I guess I just felt like it.”

And if it’s perhaps not an in depth explanation for why the Bulls can go on the road and beat top Eastern Conference teams like the Heat, Hawks and Knicks, as the Bulls did last week, and then lose at home to the pre-launch Rockets, it does indicate a pattern.

And the question de jour for this Bulls team.

How can the Bulls beat the Bucks, whom they host in the United Center Wednesday, the Nets, and the Celtics and Heat twice? And then add a double-digit loss to the now 10-23 Rockets after earlier defeats to bottom dwellers like the Spurs, Thunder and Magic?

“Maybe when we play against the teams with better records, we have that sense of urgency," said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Bulls with 31 points and is on another historic streak with multiple games of at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, just the fourth player in franchise history to do so. “Coming out like tonight (10-0 deficit to start), we can't just expect to win just because it's the Rockets and it's a bunch of young guys over there. Everybody in this league can beat anybody. We gotta be conscious of that. Understanding that every single game has that much importance for us, and we gotta have that sense of urgency. The inconsistency for us, it’s kind of what’s been killing us.”

But DeRozan also bumped against the so called elephant in the room of the Bulls veteran roster makeup that generally stands up well to skilled teams, if not as effectively at times against the most athletic teams. Who happen usually to be the experimental teams filled with those high lottery picks, the kids of this modern NBA era who see basketball as a game of three-point shooting and dunking.

Old school is nice; but only if you can teach the kids a lesson.

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 33 points and nine assists against Houston on Monday night.

“Team like that, young, they don’t know no better,” said DeRozan with equal parts respect and regret. “They’re just going to go out and play; we’ve got to realize that. A team like that, they don’t know no better. Once they see a couple go in, they are going to shoot anything and think it’s going to go in. That’s what happened. We didn’t give no resistance to make them second guess any of their shots. We gave them that window of hope; no disrespect to them, but you have to go after them and make them lay down.”

It’s perhaps on the positive side why this Bulls team may be built for the playoffs, veterans like DeRozan, Zach LaVine with 22 points and Nikola Vučević, not as much involved this game, with 10 points. Plus, reserve veterans like Goran Dragić, who benefitted from the off days with a dozen points, and Andre Drummond, who added eight points and nine rebounds.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan said he liked what he saw in the developing egalitarianism of the output with six players scoring in double figures and Drummond with eight and Ayo Dosunmu with nine. The Bulls also made a credible 13 threes in 35 attempts and shot 49 percent overall.

“When you have three quarters you are giving up 30 (plus) points, it’s hard to score enough points,” said Donovan. “We’re scoring enough, but we’ve got to be better defensively.”

The Bulls showed that last week in those three vital wins, two at the buzzer, though against teams with veteran coaches and players more regarded for their abilities to elegantly and often ingeniously operate an NBA offense.

Teams like the young Rockets with the majority of their pubescent roster and four starters born after Y2K can look like an AAU team, running around and dunking and firing threes at an alarming—certainly to me—rate. Their scorers dribble a lot, often between their legs multiple times, and sometimes you wonder if they’re waiting for someone courtside to hold up cards awarding them straight 10s. 

But those matchups at times tend to be more difficult for this Bulls group because it’s not a particularly athletic team.

LaVine certainly is a great athlete in the league’s elite, but the bulk of the offense generally runs through players more regarded for their skill than their Olympic track possibilities.

So you’ve got to, as DeRozan noted, stop those teams before they start and make them understand they are too green.

One problem the Bulls ran into Monday, however, was too much Green, the 6-6 electric No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft. He made a pair of threes in the first two minutes as the Bulls were missing-and-done, and with 6-6 backcourt mate Kevin Porter Jr., the pair absolutely demolished the Bulls, each making six threes and combining for 60 points.

They were cleverly supported by 6-11 center Alperen Sengun, another savvy Rockets pick from the 2021 draft, whose ingenious play gave a hint of Jokic-lite with 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

The Rockets thus without that much resistance—since you often can’t hit something you can’t catch—made 17 threes, shot 56 percent overall and out rebounded the Bulls 45-35. The Rockets as young teams will be weren’t great with the ball at times, the Bulls with 23 transition points. But for a young team they move the ball exceptionally well and, as DeRozan pointed out, once they get confident and start feeling it, watch out.

“I’ve known KP since he was a kid,” said LaVine. “Very talented and confident; same with Jalen Green. Extreme talent, can shoot the ball and get hot; you could see it today. They put their talents on display and you give them confidence and they don’t know any better; they just keep going. It’s frustrating (for us), but we’ve got to get ready to play another good team coming up. We can’t play like this again.”

Zach LaVine drives against Houston guard Kevin Porter Jr.

And so the battle of the frozen west side of Lake Michigan continues Wednesday with perhaps a revenge game for the Bucks in December, if there is such a thing. This Bulls group played one of its best all around games last month in Milwaukee, out hustling the Bucks on the way to a satisfying win. The Bulls insist they’ll be ready.

It’s not that they weren’t this time, and they still are missing several of their best defensive players with injuries to Javonte Green, Derrick Jones Jr. and Alex Caruso. It sounds like Green and Jones are closer to a return than Caruso, who was active on the bench trying to help the officials with foul and out of bounds calls. Though since it looked like he was wearing pajamas, they may have ignored him.

Donovan said Caruso’s concussion symptoms appear under control, though he’s been unable to practice with the shoulder issue from the same play in Atlanta.

The Bulls took the first punch in this one, but if it staggered them it was hardly a knockout and suggested they’d get this one on points.

It was 10-uh oh and 23-5 for the Rockets, slipping screens, driving and rolling for easy layups and dunks until DeRozan and Dragic began to answer back. Houston still led 36-26 after one quarter. DeRozan was pumping and faking and doing what he could. Though the Bulls weren’t making much headway until what looked like it might be the game turner toward the end of the second quarter.

Dosunmu made a pair of threes with LaVine taking more point guard responsibilities. Donovan seemed to realize Dosunmu doesn’t advance the ball into the offense much at point guard, so when Dragić was out, LaVine and DeRozan were taking more turns running offense. 

The Bulls then added what they do well on offense, hustling for a few loose balls that became a Drummond tip in and Patrick Williams three. LaVine then did what only he really can do on the Bulls, taking a lob pass from Coby White practically off the top of the backboard for a dunk. White made a magnificent play with the steal from top 2022 pick Jabari Smith, a behind the back dribble to escape a defender along the sideline and that lob connection. LaVine then knocked in back to back threes, the second off balance falling forward at the halftime buzzer. And, abracadabra, the Bulls were leading at halftime 65-64.

“We’ve got to show we can sustain it,” said Donovan. “We’ve shown glimpses we can. All of a sudden we are digging ourselves out and then you are up seven.”

Which was early in the third quarter, 74-67 Bulls with another Williams three—he continued his reliable play with 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks—and a LaVine drive. You figured the kids from Houston would have accepted they had a problem and could congratulate themselves for that first half.

But then came a fallow stretch for the Bulls. And that was enough to reinvigorate the Rockets, a 13-0 Houston run with some quick Bulls shots, isolations, turnovers, that went to 23-6 and the Rockets back ahead by 10 points after three quarters.

The Bulls threatened a bit when White with 14 points and a team best plus-17—the only Bulls with a plus rating for the game—made a three to get the Bulls within 109-100 with 8:43 left. Surely, the kids would crack now. Though there’s also a saying that adults follow a path while children explore.

Porter made two tough threes and then a pullup in the lane, apparently not realizing this was not a game they were supposed to win.

“They came out playing harder than us,” LaVine acknowledged. “We tried to come back and compete; offensively we didn’t do terrible. We just didn’t do a good job defensively. One guy got confidence and the rest got confidence.”

After a three-game road winning streak, the Bulls are now 14-19 on the season.

The Bulls keep running into this annoying habit some other teams have of also trying to win. Suddenly, it was the Rockets by 17 points in a 10-2 Green burst, and the most amusement was the wave circling around the United Center. It wasn’t aimed at the court, but it was time for the Bulls to leave.

“We’ve got to play with more urgency and edge out of the gate, especially understanding the roll we were on and feed off that momentum and understand every single game is bigger than the last,” said DeRozan. “They hit a lot of tough shots, but for the most part we let them get on the run.”

Those darned kids.

Like Caufield offered from Catcher in the Rye, “If you get on the side where all the hot shots are, then it’s a game. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot shots, then what’s a game about it?”

It’s getting to the point at 14-19 where the Bulls have to pick a lane. Or as Yogi noted, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. If that’s not clear enough, I don’t know what is.

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