Bulls know their winning formula, but discard it too often

For a team with a 14-19 record, playing to the level of competition isn't a smart strategy.

The Bulls ended their three-game win streak Monday by losing at home to the Houston Rockets, who own the worst record in the Western Conference.

They'll follow that with a home game Wednesday against Milwaukee, a team they beat on the road the night before Thanksgiving. So which Bulls team will show up in which quarters?

"I don't think it's ever about who you're playing," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said Tuesday at the Advocate Center. "You're going to go into it and have a game plan on what you need to do, but we've got to play to an identity and to a style and to a standard - and we have done it. But it's not consistent enough."

Zach LaVine suggested after the game the Bulls were lackadaisical and might have overlooked the Rockets. They fell behind by 18 points in the first quarter, rallied to take the lead by halftime and seemed to be in control, opening a 7-point advantage early in the third.

But then their worst habits seemed to return all at once and Houston went on a 17-1 run. The Bulls could never regain any momentum the rest of the way.

"We've got to be able to shut that (17-1 run) off," Donovan said. "Part of it was, for me, I thought a lot of our offense bled into our defense. And I get that we've got some really good defensive players out, but certainly we showed the ability to play good defense against New York on the road with those guys being out. We've got to be able to do it every single night. When we don't, it's really hard for us."

For whatever reason, the Bulls have struggled to self-regulate. They go through peaks and valleys throughout games, and the defensive effort tends to fade away when they're not hitting shots or getting foul calls.

After taking the 7-point lead, the Bulls sent the ball rolling downhill by missing four straight 3-point shots. The Rockets collected 15 of the 17 points during their big run on either free throws, layups or dunks.

It's easy to sit back and blame centers Nikola Vucevic or Andre Drummond for letting Houston counterpart Alperen Sengun erupt for 25 points. But the same two players were on the floor against Julius Randle in New York, not to mention the Bulls' win in Milwaukee or two victories against Boston.

"We just weren't locked in to what we needed to do," Vucevic said Tuesday. "The three games before that we were. (Monday) night we just weren't bringing it the way we needed to, it's as simple as that. Lot of mistakes, lot of blown coverages. Stuff you just can't do at the NBA level."

Help might be on the way. Alex Caruso (right shoulder sprain) and Javonte Green (right knee soreness) are both listed as questionable for the Milwaukee game.

Those two players did some scrimmaging at Tuesday's practice. Caruso was attempting to complete the final step of concussion protocol after a violent collision last week in Atlanta. Donovan said Green has continued to improve after missing the last five games.

"We needed to get some stops (Monday) night," Donovan said. "Even though we had a little bit of a shooting drought and missed some shots, if you get some stops - even if you get outscored 6-1, 7-1, 5-1.

"(But) 17-1? You've got to be able to shut that off and we didn't do that. So we're going to have to be able to do that (against Milwaukee) and really every game to give ourselves a chance to win."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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