In a nod to the unnatural circumstances under which this NBA season is being played, the Bulls’ four-game preseason slate is split between just two opponents: the Houston Rockets (both home) and Oklahoma City Thunder (both road).
That gives them another crack at the same Rockets team that hammered them 125-104 in the opener just two nights later. Bulls coach Billy Donovan panned the team’s defensive competitiveness -- in help scenarios, on the glass, at the point of attack and fighting over screens -- after Friday’s loss, and echoed those sentiments after a “very, very long film session” Saturday morning.
“The competitive spirit as a group needed to be better in terms of stopping runs, in terms of finding ways to generate good shots or get stops or a rebound. I didn’t think that we helped at all well enough,” Donovan said.
Indeed, the numbers of the night tell a tale of poor defensive execution. The Rockets made 24 3-pointers Friday (while shooting 46.2 percent from deep). They generated 24 field goal attempts in the paint in the first half (making 13, to forge a 26-14 paint-points advantage). They slung 25 assists by game’s end, enjoying persistent dribble penetration and long-range accuracy on the back-end of kickouts.
“We have to be a help-orientated team. And we did not help each other,” Donovan said. “We left guys out on islands. When there were drives, we didn’t pull across and provide any rim protection or physicality at the basket in terms of taking charges or going vertical. I thought the floor was too open. We got driven. From a defensive standpoint, we have to fight harder to get over pick-and-rolls and get back on the ball to get our bigs out of coverage. There’s just a lot of things we need to do better.”
On the offensive side, the Bulls committed 21 turnovers, which the Rockets turned into 35 points. Donovan at least partially attributed that to growing pains involved with installing a movement-based, cut-heavy offensive system, which, on its first test-drive out of the garage, was easily foiled by a switch-happy Rockets squad.
“If you're going to move and pass, you're gonna be more susceptible to turnovers,” Donovan said. “I thought in the game we did not read cuts well enough, we didn't read switches well enough and I thought a lot of times we were going down there screening and knowing that somebody's gonna switch. You've got to basically do different things to try to exploit and take advantage of the switch. I think that's going to be a big, big part of us continuing to get better as a team.”
It’s a lot of kinks to work out, but consecutive matchups against the same opponent will offer a unique template to gauge the Bulls’ response.
“It’s about competing a little more. I think we didn’t do a good job with that,” Tomáš Satoranský said when asked the biggest adjustment the Bulls need to make. “Obviously, everyone will say that. Competing on defense, competing on the ball, helping each other a little bit more. There were a lot of straight drives where we didn’t come over to help or challenge shots at the rim. You can’t have excuses for that, because obviously, the offense and a little bit of the feel is not going to be there after nine months. But you have to compete on the ball. That’s what we put the most pressure on today’s practice. We definitely have to do that tomorrow.”
“The minute the ball gets thrown up in the air, to me it’s about how you handle adversity,” Donovan said. “And I think adversity is one of the greatest teaching tools that we have because generally, you improve and get better when things are hard. When adversity hit last night, we did not respond well enough as a group in trying to solve and fix the things that were in front of us at that moment in time. We all kind of got a little bit into ourselves -- not that they were being selfish, but I guess you could say it was being somewhat selfish. They were just all figuring out what they have to do instead of solving it together as a group.”
Donovan isn’t ready to pass widespread judgement on the team’s demeanor after what he estimated has been six practices and one preseason game with them. He cited a poor Monday practice, followed by improvement Wednesday, as an early example of resiliency.
Yes, it’s still preseason. But Sunday offers a valuable opportunity to showcase that in a game setting.
“It’s really, really tough over a 48-minute period just to expect every minute of every game to go your way,” Donovan said. “It’s really how you respond when things aren’t going your way.”
Thad Young, still dealing with a leg infection, will miss Game 2 against the Rockets, per Donovan.
“He’s doing much better, which is good. Things haven’t gotten worse,” Donovan said. “But I think the doctors want to keep a close eye on him with that infection and just make sure he’s healing properly.”
Donovan indicated Young is day-to-day, but without a timetable to return.
Garrett Temple’s return to the team is also to be determined. Donovan said he remains in the league’s COVID-19 protocol after Temple said he tested positive for the virus on Nov. 28.
“There's a process that he's gonna have to go through in terms of multiple negative tests and then he's gotta go through a cardiovascular test and then he can get back on the floor and get reacclimated to the team,” Donovan said. “He's in the process of going through all those steps right now. I don't know what his test was like yesterday or today, but until he gets several negative tests and gets into the protocol of what he has to do physically to get back, we probably don't have a timetable for him quite yet.”