Do 2 bad losses by Bulls mean fast start was a mirage?
The Bulls played the kind of game Wednesday night that brought back memories of a classic Rick Pitino quote during the first rebuilding era.
Pitino was coaching the Celtics at the time. After a bad loss to the dismal, winless 1999-2000 Bulls, he was asked by a reporter how such a thing could happen and responded, "They're going to win more than one game."
Pitino was right. And the 2021-22 Houston Rockets will also win more than one game after they stunned the visiting Bulls 118-113 Wednesday, snapping a 15-game losing streak and improving to 2-16 on the season.
After the game, it was Pitino's protégé, Billy Donovan, trying to explain how the Bulls shifted into coast mode after building a 10-point lead in the third quarter. The Rockets hit the gas, peeled off a 27-9 run and led by eight heading into the fourth.
"We came out and just kind of messed around with the game and before you know it, we were down by 10, and we were up by 10," Donovan said. "I've got to somehow help this group solve it and figure that part of it out. We're a very good team, but we're not so good that we cannot show up in a quarter and expect to win, in my opinion."
Donovan called a time out less than two minutes into the third quarter and said he noticed some troubling signs right away. They Bulls seemed to get a handle on the issues until Houston went on the big run, which included hitting 7 of 8 shots from 3-point range.
"I think our guys got frustrated with the way it was going," Donovan said. "I think there were some plays we could have made that we didn't make. All these plays to me were just like these attention to detail, focus, concentration plays that we didn't make."
Is this a sign the Bulls' fast start was a mirage? Their two worst losses of the season happened in a span of three days, starting with a blowout home loss against Indiana on Monday.
With the games piling up and no practices for a few weeks, it could be that the schedule is catching up to them. After coming back from a five-game West Coast trip, the Bulls are playing five games in seven nights this week.
The worst is yet to come, since they'll play at Orlando Friday, then return home Saturday to face a Miami team that gets the next two days off.
The Bulls did get center Nikola Vucevic back Wednesday, along with multi-position pest Alex Caruso. Vucevic returned after missing seven games due to a positive COVID test.
He played 26 minutes and was productive, with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists before fouling out with 2:46 remaining.
Caruso sat out the Indiana game with a bruised left wrist, but delivered 15 points and hit 3 of 5 shots from 3-point range against the Rockets. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 28, DeMar DeRozan (6-for-19, 17 points) had an off-shooting night, while Lonzo Ball hit 5 of 7 3s for 19 points.
"I'm good, it was just the back-to-back I was a little sore," Caruso said. "It's just a normal wear and tear of the NBA."
There was a strange play with 5:13 left when Ball hit a 3, but was called for an offensive foul. Donovan challenged the play and video showed Ball going straight up in the air on the shot, not kicking out his leg or anything. But he fell when he landed and rolled into the legs of Kevin Porter Jr. The officiating crew ruled the challenge unsuccessful.
"The call made zero sense to me," Donovan said. "Now I'm not saying the call made zero sense to me because I don't agree with what they said. The way they explained it to me and what I was able to see did not make sense. If I could get a different camera view, I can maybe understand what they're talking about, but it seemed so far-fetched about what they were telling me. I was told he shot it, he came down and fell down and kind of grabbed the guy."
If Ball's shot had counted, it would have brought the Bulls within 2 points. Instead, Houston's Danuel House hit a 3 to put the Rockets up by 8. Still, the Bulls had their chances. Caruso and Vucevic hit 3s, LaVine missed a free throw that would have tied the score with 3:32 left. The Rockets then added a couple more 3s to put the game away.
Losing to a 1-16 team is a bad, bad look. But take it from Pitino, strange things happen in the NBA sometimes.