The Bulls first preseason game was a lopsided loss: 125-104, the Houston Rockets won handily. The Rockets went 24-52 on three pointers, shooting a disturbing 46.2% on what seemed to be an endless stream of uncontested bombs. 20 turnovers by the Bulls certainly didn’t help matters, and if you watched the game, your eyes backed up what the stats were telling you: The Bulls were bad.
Before the hand wringing starts, let’s all remember that this is the first preseason game after a nine/ten month lay off, with a new coach, a new defensive scheme, and a new approach on offense. This first game was destined to be ugly.
Rust. There was a lot of rust to shake off for the Bulls. Zach LaVine and Coby White both missed open jumpers you’d never expect to see them miss. Passes were flying out of bounds or getting picked off by defenders about as frequently as they found their intended target. Teammates collided with each other on both ends of the court as the Bulls tried to work through the new offensive and defensive schemes.
In his post-game press conference, Coach Billy Donovan explained that he was responsible for players staying in a base, vanilla defense for the entire game. He and the coaching staff used the game as an evaluation tool. They wanted to see what players needed to work on before making the defense more complex with switches, different coverages, and in-game adjustments. While it’s a reasonable excuse to use, the vanilla defense explanation doesn’t cover just how bad some of the one-on-one defense was. If Donovan’s plan was to see what the Bulls needed to work on defensively, the answer from this game was simply “everything.”
Throughout the game it became obvious that another area that desperately needs work is offensive decision making. I don’t say this to single out Coby White, who was the Bulls lead ball handler every time he was on the court, but the entire team made poor decisions with the ball. Too often the ball found it’s way into the hands of a (for lack of a better term) non-shooter with the shot clock winding down, playing straight into the Rockets defensive scheme.
Most of the issues on offense and defense boiled down to the Bulls thinking basketball, not playing it. Everyone seemed a little uncertain where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do. There was a lot of hand waving and pointing at spots on the floor where the player with the ball wanted someone else to be. The Bulls were just a step behind the pace of the game, as their brains tried to catch up to the action on the court, and their feet tried to catch up to their brains.
There was a lot of bad in the first preseason game but there was a lot of good as well. Let’s start with rookie Patrick Williams who played much of the game. He was confident on the court. He defended multiple positions fearlessly and well. Notably, he took on Houston’s John Wall at the perimeter, using his length and size to stonewall the All-Star. On one possession, Wall was so flummoxed by the rookie, he ended up tripping over his own feet and turning the ball over.
Lauri Markkanen also looked confident on the court. He was much more active on offense than we saw last season. Markkanen was moving without the ball, popping around screens at the three point line, cutting to the basket and baseline, using his dribble to try penetrating the lane. He looked like the Lauri Markkanen of two seasons ago, which was very encouraging to see.
For fans that have been screaming for more Wendell Carter Jr on offense, we got a heavy dose of him in this game. He went 0-5 from 3 point land, and while that was pretty awful, it was reassuring to see him taking those shots. Last season, he would balk at taking wide open shots, handing the ball off to whoever was around him. This 1st preseason game Carter was not shy with his shot, and he probably won’t be going forward if his coach is to be believed. In his post-game press conference, Billy Donovan said he thought Carter should have taken more shots. Now if he could actually make a couple of them, he might be dangerous.
Since we’re talking positive performances, I want to acknowledge the play of Noah Vonleh who was a man among boys during garbage time. He played 11 minutes, scored 12 points on 3-4 shooting (6-9 from the free throw line), he grabbed 8 rebounds, and had a nice block. I wrote when the Bulls signed him that he had reinvented himself as a small ball center, it showed in the closing minutes of this game. He flat out bullied the smaller Rocket players under the basket, they had no answer for Vonleh. If I were running the Bulls, I would find a way of keeping him on the roster.
The Bulls will get a chance at redemption today, as they face the Rockets once again in preseason action. It’s a great chance to see if they’ve improved on anything in the last two days. And that’s what I’ll be looking for in this 2nd game: Improved defense, improved movement without the ball, better passing, and less thinking. I want to see that natural flow to the offense and defense that good teams have. I know it’s probably too soon to see that from this Bulls team, but that’s what I’m looking for. Until we see it, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!