James Harden

4 observations from Rockets' blowout victory over Bulls

4 observations from Rockets' blowout victory over Bulls

The Bulls dropped to 3-7 with their 117-94 loss to the Rockets Saturday night at the United Center. Here are four observations:

Wendell Carter Jr. has been the most consistent player this season

The second-year big man posted his sixth double-double in 10 games after posting seven in 44 games last season. It featured a career-high 16 rebounds with 13 points.

Carter’s communication on defense helped backstop a strong first-half effort before the wheels fell off.

His ability to make an impact on the offensive end with so few plays called for him has stood out this season. His ability to play within himself and play to his strengths underscores a maturity which belies his age.

This was supposed to be the season Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen took the next step. Thus far, Carter has taken the biggest.

Carter said he has talked to coach Jim Boylen about having so few plays called for him.

"It doesn’t really bother me. It’s just a conversation I had with Coach. I said, ‘Coach, I’m going to do what I have to do on both ends. One or two play calls is not going to hurt,’" Carter said. "We’ve had our conversation, so we’re good."

The Bulls can’t beat the Rockets at their own game

The Bulls lead the NBA in shots within 5 feet and are sixth behind the league-leading Rockets in 3-point attempts.

They have a long way to go to reach the Rockets’ level.

The Bulls continued a season-long issue by clanking 3-pointer after 3-pointer. They finished 4-for-32 from that range and were outscored from beyond the arc 57-12.

Boylen brushed aside postgame questions about whether the Bulls need to change their offensive approach despite struggling from 3-point range all season.

"Who had better shots in the first half, us or them? Who had better shots, do you guys think? We did. We made them in Atlanta. We didn’t make them tonight. They made them and we didn’t. Give them credit," Boylen said. "We have guys shooting below their career averages by multiple points. Will that turn? I think it will. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t. I get it. Believe me. I’m sitting there with it too."

LaVine and Markkanen combined to miss 11 of 12. LaVine, in particular, struggled with shot selection and ball security in the second half after a solid first half, particularly at the defensive end.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 68 points. LaVine and Markkanen scored 24. The Rockets know what they’re getting from their stars pretty much every night. The Bulls can’t say the same for the players they want to be their stars.

"We’ve struggled to finish plays at the rim and struggled to make open shots. I think as the game goes on, it kind of wears our spirit down a little bit," Boylen said. "To me, it’s what happens to a young team. And it’s part of this growing process. I’m going to keep coaching and teaching these guys. We played three really good quarters against the Lakers. We played four really good quarters against Atlanta. We were down one at the half tonight. They doubled us up in the third quarter and that was the difference in the game. They made shots in the third and we didn’t. That’s what happened. All the clouds are cleared away now. That’s what happened. To come in here and think I’m going to change my system or change what we’ve been doing, it’s not what I’m about."

Chandler Hutchison showed more good than bad

Starting for the first time this season for the injured Otto Porter Jr., Hutchison powered home three dunks in the first half but missed a fourth and made some questionable decisions. On one possession, he threw the ball away rather than dribble it upcourt himself, which is one of his strengths.

He showed some nice aggressiveness rebounding in traffic and sprinted the floor hard. He even sank a second-half 3-pointer and continued to attack the rim, finally getting that fourth dunk. He finished with 13 points and mostly focused on his strengths — defense and rebounding.

The defense showed teeth in the first half before getting buried in an avalanche of 3-pointers

The Bulls held the league’s second-highest scoring team to 20 first-quarter points and 3.5 below their average of 120.5 points. They did so with active hands and aggressive trapping on pick-and-rolls.

This strategy backfired when Luke Kornet re-entered the first-half rotation and the Rockets repeatedly attacked him. But LaVine, in particular, looked engaged when isolated in individual matchups against Harden.

The Bulls have forced at least 15 turnovers in every game this season. They lead the league in forcing turnovers and finished with 14 steals.

"Defensively, to start the game, I felt like we were locked in. I felt we knocked some balls loose and stole the ball," Boylen said. "What I didn’t like is we fouled them early. Harden got fouled on 95 3s last year for three free throws. And we started the game with that. That’s a learning moment against Houston. Down one at the half, we hung in there and we hadn’t shot well. Third quarter, they shot the ball really well. And I thought it hurt our energy, it hurt our pace. They hit us with that barrage and we never really recovered."

Harden took over in the second half, scoring 22 of his 42 points and just missing a triple double with 10 rebounds and nine assists.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

What to watch for when the Bulls host James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets

usatsi_11772018.jpg
USA Today

What to watch for when the Bulls host James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets

Fresh off their most impressive performance of the season, the Bulls welcome James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets to the United Center, Saturday night. The contest tips off on NBC Sports Chicago at 7 p.m. CT — until then, here’s what to watch for:

1. Beware of the breakout

Stopping Harden and Westbrook completely is, on its face, an impossible ask. But if the Bulls want any shot at hanging with Houston, they’ll have to find a way to at least slow them down. 

Jim Boylen’s uber-aggressive, ball-handler-blitzing defense revealed some glaring rotational deficiencies at the start of the season, but in Wednesday’s win they showed signs of progression. Tomas Satoransky and Kris Dunn combined to smother Trae Young (2-of-6 shooting, three turnovers with Satoransky or Dunn as the primary defender), and they will likely take lead responsibilities defending Harden.

The Rockets are a different beast than the Hawks, though, so beware of the breakout: By each of their lofty standards, Harden and Westbrook are off to sluggish starts to the season, efficiency-wise. Harden is shooting his lowest percentage from three (27%) on his most attempts per game (13.9) in his career so far, and as a backcourt, he and Westbrook have two of the seven highest turnover per game totals in the league.

Maybe a steal-happy Bulls squad gives them fits. Or maybe facing a middling defense short its best wing defender in Otto Porter Jr. is exactly what the Rockets’ dynamic duo need to get back on track.

2. Wing depth and rotation concerns

Speaking of Porter, check out these per-game splits. Small sample-size alert, but they tell a story:

First five games: 8.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals; 31.8%, 57.9% from three

Last four games: 14.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals; 52.5% FG, 57.9% from three

The Bulls record in his first five was 1-4. The last four? 2-2, and that includes a loss to the Lakers that the Bulls dominated for three-plus quarters. 

Now, they’ll have to make do without Porter for an undisclosed period of time, and he leaves a massive hole in their rotation behind Chandler Hutchison. Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford are back from Hoffman Estates, but Boylen hasn't demonstrated an affinity for either of them — the two have combined for 11 minutes of playing time so far this season.

Valentine, specifically, is coming off a 25 point, 18 rebound, 8 assist effort for Windy City last night. Without much in the way of wing depth against an opponent that could bait the Bulls into foul trouble, it's worth monitoring if he can jump Shaq Harrison or Ryan Arcidiacono in the rotation.


Whatever shape it may take, buckle up for some Boylen experimenting tonight.

3. A plan of attack

To flip a timeless adage on its head, sometimes — when faced with as prolific an offensive attack as Houston’s — the best defense is great offense. The Rockets have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league so far this season, and it all starts in their backcourt. They haven’t held an opponent under 100 points in any of their first eight games and have ceded 25+ point outings to Bradley Beal, Alec Burks and Caris Levert in the last week-and-a-half.

The Bulls should have enough firepower in at the guard spot to take advantage. Satoransky is coming off perhaps the best performance of his career, Zach LaVine is circling a breakout and Coby White — one-dimensional as he may be — has shown an ability to put balls in the basket. Wear Harden, Westbrook, Gordon and co. down on that end of the floor, and it might reap benefits that creep into other areas of the game.

4. Threes on threes on threes

Ultimately, these are both teams that want to push the pace and shoot a ton of threes — those themes will undoubtedly pervade this game from start to finish. 

Houston is second in the league in three-pointers attempted (47.8) and made (15.8) per game this season; the Bulls are 10th (35.0) and 15th (11.7), respectively. The Rockets rank dead last in midrange attempts per game (4.8), the Bulls 28th (6.8). The list goes on, but you get the picture.

The key: Neither of these teams is actually shooting the three-ball all that well, at least not yet. Believe it or not, the Bulls are currently outpacing the Rockets in three-point percentage by decimal points, but Houston is playing at a much faster tempo (107.6 possessions per game compared to the Bulls’ 102.8). Expect a lot of possessions, a lot of early-shot-clock jumpers, and a lot of points tonight. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Zach LaVine-James Harden matchup will showcase differing styles of being the 1st scoring option

lavine_closer_look_thumb.jpg
USA TODAY

Zach LaVine-James Harden matchup will showcase differing styles of being the 1st scoring option

The Bulls made some key changes entering the 20129-20 season, adding vital talent to both the coaching staff and the roster. With a new-look team trying to make a big improvement following a lackluster, 22-win season, it was expected that Bulls star Zach LaVine would be asked to play somewhat differently, specifically with the addition of former Brooklyn Nets assistant coach Chris Fleming.

LaVine was asked to change his game in some aspects and through nine games, the results have been encouraging, but of course, with room for improvement.

In the 2018-19 season, LaVine averaged 0.96 points per possession, shooting 41.3% on 2.4 field goal attempts per game on isolation plays.

https://twitter.com/BullsDiario/status/1069051555675078656

While he was nowhere near the level of isolation-master or free throw magnet that James Harden was, who comes to town on Saturday night, LaVine was in the 72nd percentile in isolation scoring, making him one of the better iso scorers in the league and certainly on the Bulls. In 2018-19, LaVine also attempted six free throw attempts per game, knocking them down at an 83.2% rate.

That has changed in a big way over the first nine games of the 2019-20 season.

LaVine's free throw average has dropped to 4.1 attempts per game. And though he has not played less out of isolation plays—LaVine is still averaging 2.4 field goal attempts per game in isos—his field goal percentage in isolation plays has dropped to a paltry 27.3%.

It's early enough in the season to expect that figure to go up considerably, but the fact that he has been a quality offensive player without feasting on isos is encouraging.

LaVine's offensive game has strayed away from what Harden's is—i.e., lots of pick-and-rolls and isolations—and more towards that of an on and off-ball scorer, again, with positive results so far.

Through nine games LaVine's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions via NBA.com) is 107.0, up from 105.8 last season, and a big reason for that is his shot distribution.

As visible through the above shot chart, this season LaVine is eschewing the midrange in favor of a more aggressive approach from the 3-point line and a continued commitment to getting to the rim. Through nine games this season, LaVine is shooting 1.1 midrange shots per game after taking 3.7 midrange field goal attempts per game last season.

What that shot chart doesn't show is how LaVine is getting his shots.

LaVine used pick-and-rolls much more frequently last season, scoring 0.90 points per possession on 9.6 pick-and-roll possessions per game. This season he has scored 0.98 points per possession but only on 6.3 pick-and-roll possessions per game.

His new bread-and-butter plays outside of transition offense and (slightly less) pick-and-rolls include more spot-up 3-pointers, catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, and handoffs. What all this means is that LaVne is truly trying to keep the rock moving, adhering to Boylen's "0.5 seconds" rule.

Among the most significant figures, LaVine is shooting 42.9% this season on 3.1 pull up 3-point attempts per game, 33.3% on 3.0 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game—up from 1.7 catch and shoot 3-point attempts per game last season—and his average seconds per touch is down from 4.57 seconds last season to 3.62 seconds so far in 2019-20.

LaVine's slightly altered style of play — no doubt heavily influenced by Fleming, Boylen and the rest of the Bulls organization — has opened up the door for Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr, Tomas Satoransky and Coby White to have role significant roles in the offense.

This has had mixed results so far, as evidenced by the Bulls' currently 23rd ranked offense, but things have still been a step up from last year's 29th ranked offense.

Small sample size alert always applies this early in the regular season but things are looking up for Zach LaVine.

While LaVine's defense still has a long way to go, he is posting a career-high 1.8 steals per 100 possessions and again, through nine games, his new-look shot distribution has lead to the second-best offensive rating (107.0) of his career.

Saturday night's Bulls-Rockets game will be a great showcase for Bulls fans to see LaVine's new-look game, featuring an efficient off-ball offense against the contrasting style of Harden, who will force the Bulls to defend upwards of 11 isolations.

If LaVine can help the Bulls get off to another fast start — Chicago scored 33 points in the first quarter of Wednesday's win over the Hawks — then they have a great shot at beating a defense-averse Rockets team.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.