Bulls

9 observations: Bulls bench erupts in rout of Rockets

Bulls

The Chicago Bulls suffered perhaps their worst loss of the season on Nov. 24 in Houston, falling to the then-1-16 Rockets 118-113.

Monday at the United Center, no such upset was in the cards.

From the opening tip to the final horn, the Bulls dominated the second night of the back-to-back set they played fresh off an eight day, COVID-19 induced pause, routing the Rockets 133-118. The result moves their season-long record to 19-10, and preserves their second-place standing in the Eastern Conference.

Here are nine observations:

1. The fun started early, with Javonte Green taking the opening tipoff one dribble up-court for a two-handed slam in the game’s first five seconds. The Bulls rode that energy to a 9-0 lead at the 10:22 mark, and despite Houston cutting within two later in the period, the hosts put up 35 points, shot 50 percent (5-for-10 from 3-point range) and led by nine heading into quarter two.

By halftime, the Bulls had put this one just about out of reach, scoring a season-high 73 points, shooting 60 percent from the field (9-for-17 from 3) and leading by 19. Their 133 points by night’s end matched a season-high.

2. Whatever the opposite of a silver lining occurred, though, when Alex Caruso exited stage left after six minutes with what the team later termed a left foot sprain. Donovan said postgame he thinks an awkward landing led to the injury.

 

Caruso was two games returned from a hamstring strain that sidelined him nearly three contests, and looked spry with a 17-point, nine-rebound effort against the Lakers on Sunday. His absence opened up 14 minutes for Devon Dotson, who tallied five points, four assists and hit a 3.
 
3. Nikola Vučević led all scorers with eight points in the first quarter, and though he missed both of his 3-point attempts, he got his from an encouraging area: the interior. Vučević’s four first-quarter makes came on post-ups of Eric Gordon and Jae’Sean Tate, then a duck-in at the charge circle on Gordon, then a post fallaway over Alperen Şengün – the first three taking advantage of the Rockets’ switch-everything scheme.

After a scoreless second, he rimmed in a catch-and-shoot 3 on a feed from DeRozan, then minutes later put back a blocked Coby White layup attempt and sealed Gordon off under the rim again for a transition bucket. In the fourth, he buried another 3 to finish the night with 18 points on 8-for-18 shooting (5-for-7 in the paint).

Vučević has struggled to finish around the basket in this season’s early-going, so seeing him take advantage of size mismatches inside was a positive sign. So, too, were the four assists (along with countless more of the hockey variety) off well-timed passes out of the post.

4. Head coach Billy Donovan spoke pregame about the importance of seldom-used, end-of-roster players to step up while the team remains shorthanded – and that was before Caruso’s injury. While bench scoring was a pain point against the Lakers, mission accomplished against Houston.

By halftime, the Bulls had bested their 29th-ranked average of 25.6 bench points per game, outscoring the Rockets’ reserves 32-11. White led the way with 11 points (2-for-4 from 3-point range), while Alfonzo McKinnie chipped in nine (3-for-3 from deep).

By game’s end, the Bulls led that category 66-48 (another season-high), getting 24 points from White, 16 from McKinnie, 11 from Tyler Cook and eight from Tony Bradley. With Zach LaVine, Ayo Dosunmu, Troy Brown Jr., Alize Johnson and Matt Thomas still in protocols, and Derrick Jones Jr. on the shelf with a hamstring injury, it was needed.

5. Cook, who is on a two-way contract, and McKinnie, who signed his second 10-day with the Bulls via hardship on Monday, were particularly impressive in the unlikely bench hero category.

Cook visited the free-throw line a team-high eight times and looked noticeably unafraid on dives to the rim – a valuable trait for a four-man. McKinnie, meanwhile, shot 4-for-6 from 3-point range, flushed home a fastbreak alley-oop from Lonzo Ball and a putback off a Green missed jumper, and even notched a strip block.

 

6. White, meanwhile, looked much better than in his return from protocols against the Lakers. His 24 points and five made 3-pointers each marked season-highs, and it appeared he received more opportunities to bring the ball up the floor and initiate action in the halfcourt. Donovan after the game lauded White’s bouncebackability, given the injury/illness adversity and role adjustment (from playing primarily on-the-ball to off-of-it) he has endured in his third season, and aggression, which showed in his 15 shot attempts and five trips to the free-throw line.

7. And it wasn’t as if their top performers no-showed. DeMar DeRozan poured in a relatively quiet 26 points and six assists. Ball chipped in 19 points, eight assists and three 3-pointers. With Vučević’s 18, the trio top-scoring starters combined for 63 points on the evening – more than enough to buoy the team given the depth of contributions they received.

8. The Bulls entered play 10-3 when they scored 20 or more points off of opponent turnovers, and 8-7 when they didn't. But, rather ironically, the game in which they notched their season-high in that category came in the aforementioned November loss to Houston, when they tallied 35 points off 22 Rockets cough-ups.

On Monday, the Bulls’ formula for success worked once again, but this time resulted in victory. Spearheaded by five steals from Ball, the Bulls scored 24 points off 14 Houston turnovers; and on this night, the Rockets weren’t able to equalize with hot 3-point shooting. In their early-season win, they shot 17-for-36 from distance; in this one, 12-for-33 (36.4 percent) to the Bulls’ 16-for-35 (45.7 percent).

9. Donovan said pregame that Jones Jr., who left the Lakers game with a hamstring injury, will be re-evaluated after Wednesday’s game against the Raptors. The Bulls have a three-day stretch without games after that contest. Fortunately for Jones Jr., Donovan said further testing left the impression the injury is a mild one and won’t result in a long-term absence.

Next up: Home for the Raptors on Wednesday.

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