Russell Westbrook

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.

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

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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. 

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Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen trying to become dynamic duo for Bulls

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USA Today

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen trying to become dynamic duo for Bulls

Jim Boylen once worked for the Rockets. Now, the Bulls are playing like them.

OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration, obviously. For starters, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are proven All-Stars, while Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are trying to get there. The Rockets also clearly have an established offensive pecking order, while the Bulls’ equal opportunity system has produced some moments of drifting for LaVine and Markkanen.

And no team takes more 3-pointers or field goals earlier in the shot clock than the Rockets, who also only trail the Timberwolves in pace.

But after detailing his desire to break the Bulls’ offense down before building it back up, Boylen now has the personnel for his plan. The Bulls rank 15th in pace, eighth in fast-break points and, if shooters start matching their career numbers, could become a consistent 3-point threat.

As of Friday morning, the Bulls trailed only the Rockets and Bucks in 3-point attempts and led the league in attempts less than 5 feet. Somewhere, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey nods approvingly.

“We’re trying to do that style,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’ve done a good job of taking less (mid-range shots). I still shoot the ones that are open. But it’s the style of play we want, and we’re going to work it.”

The Bulls rank tied for 22nd in 3-point percentage at 33.3 percent, just ahead of the Rockets’ 33 percent. At 6.3 attempts, LaVine is shooting the second-most of his career per game and connecting on 38.6 percent, above his career mark of 37.4 percent.

Markkanen entered this season as a career 36.2 percent 3-point shooter and has connected at just 30.4 percent this season. Otto Porter Jr., who is sidelined indefinitely with a sprained left foot, entered the season as a career 40.5 percent 3-point shooter and has recently overcome a slow start to pull to 40 percent.

“We have really good 3-point shooters on the team, LaVine said. “If you start slow eventually the numbers will average out, get you where you’re supposed to be at. I feel like I’m shooting the ball pretty well. Otto, before he hurt himself, got really hot in that Atlanta game. His shot started to come on. Lauri made a couple threes, so it’s picking up.’’

What also needs to pick up is LaVine and Markkanen forming a consistent 1-2 punch. The Rockets pretty much know what they’re going to get from Harden and Westbrook every night. Too often it seems if LaVine dominates, Markkanen doesn’t. And vice versa.

In theory, the duo should work perfectly — two players with shooting range and a broad offensive package. Drive and kick. Pick and roll. Pick and pop. You name it, LaVine and Markkanen should have the offensive chops to achieve it.

“It seems like a match made in heaven. We just got to be able to be consistent together and both be dominant on the court at the same time,” LaVine said. “We know we can be a dynamic duo, with our shooting, our athletic ability to get to the hoop. We just have to put it into the game. We’ve seen it at points in the game sometimes---last year, this year---but we’ve just got to do it consistently.”

And in the fourth quarter. Every opponent knows the ball will be in the hands of Harden and Westbrook the most come crunch time. Harden’s fourth-quarter usage rate sits at 41.7 and Westbrook’s 29.4. LaVine is at 30.5, while Markkanen is at 23.1.

LaVine has been efficient in the fourth. His 53 points in the final period ranks 14th in the NBA. Harden’s 69 fourth-quarter points ranks fourth, while Westbrook’s 59 points sits 10th.

“I'm not trying to force too many things. Obviously when I feel like I need to try to take over, be aggressive, I do that and I feel like that's the right thing,” LaVine said. “I know I'm still pretty high up in fourth-quarter scoring. I feel like I've been pretty efficient. I haven't been as efficient as I was last year, but it's early on in the season. If I can get my field-goal percentage up about six percentage points, I'll be where I was last year. Just continue to work on little things.”

Indeed, part of the responsibility of establishing an offensive pecking order falls on the player. Markkanen in particular is more effective late when he runs the floor hard or rebounds early. Players have to earn teammates’ trust and aggressively pursue shots.

For now, Boylen wants LaVine to focus on being a more complete player.

“I thought Zach was tremendous the other night,” Boylen said of LaVine’s performance in Atlanta. “He let it come to him. He had (four) assists, five deflections and two steals. And we won. I’ve been asking him to be a complete player. And, to me, he’s working towards that. And he’s working hard.”

LaVine only scored 10 points on 10 shots that game but engaged defensively and didn’t force matters. That the game was a blowout and his offensive aggressiveness wasn’t needed in the fourth quarter helped.

“As long as we get the win, obviously, I'm cool with it,” LaVine said of 10 shots. “I'm going to continue the way I'm supposed to. I feel like I played the right way. I got my teammates involved. I played really good defense. I know we'll need my scoring against Houston, though, so I'll be aggressive.”

That’s the right approach as well.

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