The Chicago Bulls fell directly into the jaws of a trap game at the United Center Monday night, falling 133-118 to the Western Conference-worst Houston Rockets.
The loss snapped a season-long three game win streak for the Bulls, dropping them to 14-19 on the season — and a harrowing 3-8 against teams below .500.
“Not the same mentality,” Zach LaVine said when asked about the disparity between the streak and Monday’s performance. “(We) came out a little bit lackadaisical, probably. Taking a team for granted, and you can’t do that in the NBA.”
Here are 10 observations:
1. On the heels of a three-game road win streak that saw the Bulls play to a sustainable standard on both ends of the floor, one of their most damnable bad habits reemerged in this one: Starting slow on the defensive end.
In the first 1:56 of the first quarter, Houston jumped ahead 10-0, and eventually pulled ahead by as many as 18 points behind the crafty finishing of Alperen Şengün (11 points, 4-for-4 shooting) and explosiveness of Jalen Green (eight points).
And it was not as if it was all hot shooting; the Rockets shot 2-for-9 from 3-point range in the frame, but the Bulls’ defense broke down multiple times in transition and screen-and-roll coverage (22 points in the paint) to allow 66.7 percent shooting. Those are two of Billy Donovan’s most harped-about areas.
“We can’t be a one-end team. And it certainly started that way, defensively,” Donovan said postgame. “It was a combination of our physicality on the ball, getting over screens; our bigs having to stay in coverage a little bit longer to get the ball under control; the ball going into the middle of the floor and us in rotation.”
Houston finished the first quarter ahead 36-26 — and it could have been worse if they had converted more than six of their 10 free throw attempts.
DeMar DeRozan on Rocketsâ 23-5 start: âItâs unacceptable. That just comes with defensive effort and toughness.â
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 27, 2022
2. How did the Bulls respond? Well, with a 39-point second quarter capped by a buzzer-beating LaVine 3-pointer that vaulted them ahead 65-64 at the break.
The heroes of the frame were DeMar DeRozan (eight points, 3-for-3 shooting and two and-one sequences), LaVine (10 points, 2-for-2 from 3-point range) and opportunistic team defense. The Bulls forced four Houston turnovers in the second and converted them into seven points. That dynamic sparked a 15-3 run in the final 2:26 that brought them from down 11 to up one.
3. With a 9-3 run to open the third quarter, the Bulls, leading 74-67 appeared to seize control of the game.
But 17-1 Rockets sprint, which put the visitors ahead 84-75, followed, and Houston went on to win the third quarter 35-24, pulling ahead by as many as 14 and leading 99-89 entering the fourth.
4. The Bulls’ biggest issue in a game full of them: They did not have a defensive answer for the Rockets’ best three players: Green, Şengün and Kevin Porter Jr.
Green put up 24 points and was a blur both off the dribble and raining stepback jumper after stepback jumper en route to 6-for-10 3-point shooting. He even jawed at Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White after makes in the second quarter.
Porter, who completes an uber-athletic backcourt tandem with Green, added 36 points, including 15 and three 3-pointers in the fourth quarters as Houston closed the game out.
Şengün, meanwhile, is quite agile for the center position and found his way into the crevices of the Bulls’ interior defense routinely, amassing 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists while making 10 of his 12 shots.
In all, this Rockets’ trio finished with 85 points on cumulative 33-for-49 shooting.
5. DeMar DeRozan ended the contest with a solid stat line — 31 points, 10 assists, 11-for-18 shooting — but had 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting through three quarters before beginning the fourth 1-for-4 with a turnover on a post-up of reserve guard TyTy Washington. He got his at various points, but Houston’s stable of young, scrappy wing defenders — mainly, Jabari Smith and Tari Eason — were physical and disciplined, falling only once for DeRozan’s patented flurry of pump fakes.
6. LaVine, too, produced with 22 points, five dimes and a 9-for-19 shooting line.
But following a three-game stretch of tremendous balance and flow between the Bulls’ star trio, Monday was a bit more disjointed.
LaVine, for example, missed his first six shots before heating up in the second quarter. DeRozan had his struggles to open the fourth. And Nikola Vučević tallied just 10 points and three rebounds while shooting 4-for-12 from the field. Vučević, specifically, had moments of visible frustration in the first half and also was leveraged by the greener Şengün.
7. Goran Dragić, Williams and White constituted some dull silver linings. Dragić had 12 points off the bench, including eight in the first quarter to keep the Bulls afloat initially. Williams notched 12 points and seven boards, making two 3-pointers and flashing sequences of high defensive activity. White contributed 12 points and five assists with some solid decision-making embedded.
8. Donovan, in fact, was pleased with the Bulls’ offense, which produced 118 points, 28 assists and six players in double-figures.
“With how we’re trying to play, I think we’re making nice progress in terms of how we’re trying to play offensively,” he said. “We’re trying to play the right way and we’re trying to move the ball.”
9. But ultimately, the Bulls’ team defense markedly regressed from a three-game win streak that featured long strides in the competitiveness department. Houston scored 30-plus points in three of the four quarters and finished 55.6 percent from the field, 17-for-44 (38.6 percent) from 3-point range and with 60 points in the paint (30-for-42 shooting).
It must be noted that said offensive numbers were amassed by a team that entered play 29th in the NBA in both offensive rating and effective field goal percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Bulls could not even take advantage of their propensity for giveaways, forcing just 13 turnovers (while the Rockets scored 15 points off eight Bulls cough-ups).
“I don’t know. Maybe when we play against the teams with better records, we have that sense of urgency,” DeRozan said of the Bulls’ record disparity in games against top teams and lesser ones. “Coming out like tonight, 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.”
Yes, the Bulls played without three of their best defenders in Alex Caruso, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr. But that dynamic runs deeper.
10. This Rockets team also entered tied for the fewest road wins in the league, 3-13, while the Bulls were 7-7 at home. After three consecutive road wins to pull their away record from 4-11 to 7-11, Monday marked the beginning of a four-game home stand and a chance to continue building momentum.
Instead, a packed, post-Christmas house drove home disappointed.
Next up for the Bulls: Home for the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.
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