The Chicago Bulls suffered their worst defeat of the season Wednesday night, falling 118-113 to a Houston Rockets team that entered play on a 15-game losing streak.
The Bulls, who now find themselves on a two-game skid, fall to 12-7 (4-2 after losses). The Rockets improve to 2-16.
Here are 10 observations:
1. Nikola Vučević made his return to the starting lineup after a seven-game spell on the shelf with COVID-19. His performance was uneven, but ended in a double-double of 14 points (6-for-16 shooting), 13 rebounds and four assists. He fouled out late in the fourth quarter.
In his first six-minute stint, Vučević made a nice short-roll read to pick out a Javonte Green corner 3-pointer (on the Bulls’ first possession of the game), and scored his first bucket on a tip-in assisted by DeMar DeRozan. But he also missed four of his first five looks, including two from point-blank range.
The beginning of the second quarter brought promising signs. The two-man chemistry Vučević and Coby White formed down the stretch of last season popped during a three-possession stretch in which White assisted a Vučević floater and 3-pointer, then Vučević returned the favor by handing off to White and setting a subsequent screen to free him for a 3-pointer. Vučević scored seven points on 3-for-6 shooting in the second. But he was also worked at the other end by Rockets rookie Alperen Şengün for a good chunk of the period (the 19-year-old notched eight points, three rebounds and shot 3-for-4).
Vučević initially had his second-half minutes limited by foul trouble, but did hit a big 3-pointer as the Bulls threatened a comeback in the final frame. He said postgame that his 26 minutes were beyond his initial restriction of 20, but he felt good enough to extend with the Bulls in a bind.
2. With Vučević back, Javonte Green re-entered the starting lineup in place of Alex Caruso, and Tony Bradley (who started all seven games in Vučević’s absence) slipped from the rotation until Vučević picked up his fifth foul. Instead of running Bradley with the second-stringers, Billy Donovan opted to run uber-small lineups with Derrick Jones Jr. and Javonte Green at the five, which have had success in certain matchups early in the season.
The Rockets went on a mini-run against a Green-anchored unit in the waning moments of the second quarter, but a 3 by Lonzo Ball and fastbreak layups by Caruso and Zach LaVine extended the Bulls’ advantage to 64-55 at the half.
3. The Bulls widened that advantage to 10 points midway through the third, but the Rockets ripped an avalanche down the stretch of that period to flip this game on its head. They scored 35 points in the third quarter, holding the Bulls to 18, and shot 8-for-11 from 3-point range to carry a 90-82 advantage entering the fourth. Donovan went so far as to say his team "messed around with the game" in the third.
4. Though the Bulls trimmed their deficit early in the fourth quarter, the Rockets extended their lead to 11 points with 7 minutes, 4 seconds to play. An inexplicable eight-second violation in which White listlessly dropped a pass intended for Caruso behind him in the backcourt, followed by Caruso not getting the ball across the halfcourt line in time, encapsulated the team’s lack of urgency in the second half.
5. A timeout with 6 minutes, 19 seconds left, and Houston ahead 99-89, looked for a moment as if it could be the turning point. The Bulls ripped a 5-0 run in the first 43 seconds out of that stoppage, then Ball hit a 3-pointer that appeared to cut the deficit to 99-97.
But in a controversial moment, Ball was whistled for an offensive foul on the shot. Donovan challenged the call, but was unsuccessful; he said postgame officials told him Ball “grabbed” Kevin Porter Jr. on the way down.
Houston won the next five minutes 17-14, leading by eight points with 16.3 seconds to play before a LaVine scoring flurry, and Garrison Mathews free throws, made the final tally 118-113. The Rockets won the second half 63-49, shot 13-for-21 from 3-point range, and, to make matters worse, scored 21 points off 11 Bulls turnovers; the Bulls dished just nine assists in the second half after tallying 17 in the first, an indicator of stagnant offense.
6. This was a bad night for what has been an impressive Bulls defensive unit. The Rockets entered play with a putrid 97.3 offensive rating, good for last in the league, but put up 118 points, shot 50 percent from the field (making 17 3-pointers at a 47.2 percent clip) and placed eight players in double-figures. The Bulls saw part of a winning formula come to fruition by forcing 21 Rockets turnovers (and scoring 35 points off of them), but on the possessions that didn’t end in takeaways, they conceded too many open looks.
7. Caruso, as well as Vučević, returned to game action in this one, though he only missed one game with a wrist contusion. Donning some tape on that left hand, Caruso played 33 minutes, scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter (burying three 3-pointers in the process) and produced some typically stifling defensive sequences in big moments. The rub: It came in a losing effort.
8. The Bulls’ small-ball style has had revelatory moments, but in this one, the Rockets won the rebound battle 57-44 and scored 16 second-chance points off of seven offensive rebounds. The Bulls converted eight offensive boards into just two second-chance points on the night.
9. The Rockets got 59 points from their bench — including multiple 3-point makes from Danuel House (4-for-4), Armoni Brooks (3-for-6), Şengün (2-for-3) and Mathews (2-for-3) — compared to just 26 from the Bulls. Outside of Caruso’s 15 points, Ayo Dosunmu notched eight, Jones Jr. and Bradley were held scoreless, and Coby White again struggled, shooting 1-for-5 from the floor.
10. Two palate cleansers to close: Ball bounced back from a scoreless outing against the Pacers to shoot 5-for-7 from 3-point range, improving his season-long percentage to 43.8 percent. And Dosunmu and Green each threw down highlight-reel slams in the first and second quarters, respectively:
But this was a largely irredeemable defeat that the Bulls must learn from if they want to be the caliber of team they've shown flashes of being early in the season.
Next up: A chance to right the ship in Orlando against the Magic on Friday.