The Bulls played their first basketball game in nine months Friday night. It ended in a 125-104 romp at the hands of the Houston Rockets.
“We got our ass kicked in in a lot of ways,” head coach Billy Donovan said postgame. “But I think it also gives us a point of reference from the standpoint of the things we’ve got to focus on and where we got to get better.”
Here’s what stood out:
So, about that nine-month layoff…
This one got off to a rocky start. The Bulls’ first defensive possession ended with John Wall bulldozing Coby White for an easy lay-in (followed by a flex). Their first offensive possession ended in a Lauri Markkanen over-the-head pass that would have taken a fan or two out if any were present.
A lot of clunkiness ensued, but all you need to know is the Rockets jumped out to a 14-2 lead in the first three minutes, and when the Bulls used their first timeout with 7:17 remaining in the first quarter, they trailed 19-7 and had committed more turnovers (four) than made field goals (three). By the half, they trailed 68-48 and sported just 41% and 26.3% marks from the field and deep, respectively.
Save a few isolation buckets, there was a fair amount of side-to-side ball movement, so take that away as a baby shuffle in the right direction if you’re so inclined. Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. found a few buckets. And Lauri Markkanen rode two third-quarter 3s to a final line of 13 points on 5-for-8 from the field (3-for-5 from 3).
But it was a largely ugly offensive performance, especially when the minutes (sort of) mattered. A rusty team still learning a new offensive system.
“We dug ourselves a hole in that first half, and I don’t know what it was but they had an enormous amount of points they converted off our turnovers,” Donovan said. “The turnovers killed us as far as getting into any rhythm or flow, and a lot of that was the moving and cutting. Listen, the more ball movement you have, the more cutting you have, the more you do that, you’re going to make yourself susceptible to turnovers. I thought there were times we did a pretty good job of cutting, and there were other times we needed to do a better job.”
The Bulls finished with 21 turnovers to the Rockets’ six, and the Rockets won the points-off-turnovers battle 35-3.
So, about the perimeter defense…
It’s only one preseason game. But tonight did little to dispel concerns about the Bulls losing their two sturdiest perimeter defenders last season in Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison — and even less to assure confidence in the defensive viability of a Coby White-Zach LaVine backcourt.
Take a look at these final stat lines from key Rockets guards:
- Eric Gordon: 16 points; 7-10 FG, 2-4 3P
- John Wall: 13 points, 9 assists; 6-10 FG, 1-3 3P
- Gerald Green: 16 points; 5-10 FG, 3-6 3P
- Ben McLemore: 10 points; 2-5 3P
Wall, particularly, looked spry in his first game action since Dec. 26, 2018. Not all of those buckets were scored on White and LaVine, but there were enough advantage drives to raise an eyebrow or two.
“Gotta play harder, get into him defensively,” White said of the Wall matchup. “I know I’m going to be guarding a lot of the top point guards in the league every night so I gotta take on that challenge… I know I’m going to continue to get better from it.”
All in all, the Rockets finished the opening two quarters — from where most of the above production derived — shooting 26-for-51 from the field (52 percent) and 11-for-24 (47.8 percent) from 3. They ended the night 24-for-52 (46.2 percent) from deep.
“We did not guard the ball well enough, we did not help well enough, and we didn’t block-out well enough,” Donovan said. “We’ve got to build those habits.” Donovan added that, because of the exhibition nature of the contest, the Bulls didn’t enter with any matchup-specific gameplanning, and didn’t adjust out of their base defense throughout.
More growing pains
Wendell Carter Jr., the 3-point shooter: Carter’s first five shots were 3s, and while only one was acres-wide-open, all clanked. His first bucket came on a putback dunk off a White missed 3 that he helped produce with a separate offensive rebound and kickout. Again, one preseason game.
“They felt good. I know I’m a good shooter,” Carter said. “We just implemented this offense a month ago, maybe. Like, at the most probably a month ago. It’s all new for me. I went from being just a dive guy and rebounding and blocking shots. And now I’m stretching the floor and they’re trusting me with the ball. It’s the first preseason game. I tested the waters. More than likely I won’t be popping as much as I was tonight. But I just wanted to see how it felt and see how it went for me.”
“This is great for Wendell from this perspective,” Donovan said, “he’s not going to 3-for-5, 4-for-8, 6-for-9. How he he going to respond not making a 3 and going 0-for-5? That to me is really what it comes down to for him. I still have a lot of belief because I saw him make enough at a high enough level in practice. But that’s practice.”
Coby White, the playmaker: White had two unsightly turnovers in the first half, and appeared out of his depth in the lead guard role early. But he settled in in the second quarter with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting — and two tough through-contact finishes — and racked up three assists in the third. Most would have gladly taken his final line of 15 points (leading the Bulls) on 5-for-11 shooting (2-for-4 from deep), six assists and two turnovers before the night began, even if getting there was an adventure.
“If I had to give it 1 to 10, I’d say 3 or 4,” White said of his performance. “Struggled a little bit, but I ain’t hooped in nine months. New front office, new everything so trying to give myself some grace. But feel like I could’ve played a lot better.”
“I thought Coby in that first quarter probably started a little bit slow so to speak. I think he was trying to find his way,” Donovan said. “I think when he came back in the second quarter he played certainly more comfortable and better.”
Patrick Williams: A silver lining
There were some real Patrick Williams flashes in this one. Take his first NBA bucket as one example:
He hit another mid-range pull-up on the next possession, but traveled in the build-up. Then, in the third quarter, he splashed a putback floater off an offensive rebound, and another pull-up middy a possession later — followed by another nifty floater off a drive-and-spin minutes later. Markkanen wasn’t kidding when he quipped he hadn’t seen Williams miss one after a recent practice. 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting plus three rebounds mark a solid debut for the rook.
“He has a really good feel for the game. I mean he very, very rarely forces shots. He makes good decisions. He’s a good passer,” Donovan said. “I thought he did a really nice job tonight.”
As for the rest of the bench… Donovan said going in the Bulls planned to run a nine-man rotation in the first half, possibly 10 if fatigue or foul trouble dictated. That nine: the starters, plus Tomáš Satoranský, Chandler Hutchison, Daniel Gafford and Patrick Williams.
Of the bunch, Satoranský stood out early, playing with typical composure and picking out open teammates — mainly, Otto Porter Jr. behind the arc — with regularity. A lineup of Satoranský, Porter, Williams, Hutchison and Wendell Carter Jr. trimmed the deficit to nine early in the second quarter.
The deep reserves largely grabbed the reins midway through the third quarter.
This is all just a bit unnerving
Black tarp emblazoned with the Bulls and United Airlines logos covered the seats. Players ran out for layup lines to customary soundsystem blare, but it echoed hollowly. Media watched perched from the 200 level, our usual courtside spots inhabited by two empty cars).
The game itself features all the normal beats, with new public address announcer Tim Sinclair signaling fouls, buckets and stoppages, and music playing in the interim. A modicum of piped-in crowd noise added another muted layer of sound — not that real-life spectators would have had much to cheer in this one anyway.
Still, it was all a bit strange. And it’s only just beginning. Next up, another home date with the Rockets Sunday.