By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (670 The Score) — The Bulls fell 116-107 to the Rockets at the United Center on Monday evening. Bobby Portis had a team-high 22 points, but Chicago lost for the fifth time in its past six games.
Here are the notes and observations of the evening.
1. At the halfway point of this rebuilding season, the Bulls sit at 14-27. That’s more wins than management envisioned without guard Zach LaVine playing at all amid his rehab from left ACL surgery and good for a 28-win pace that would decrease the Bulls’ chances of landing a franchise-changing talent in the top five picks or so.
Of course, coach Fred Hoiberg didn’t let on that he cared at all about that. He’s been impressed with the team’s progress this season, notably in the team’s response after a nightmare 3-20 start.
“The expectation for this year’s team was to get them to come out and compete at a high level every time they step on the floor,” Hoiberg said.
“It’s been exciting to see what this team can do when we go out and play the right way — which is unselfish basketball with great pace — we can hang with anybody in the league.”
The player who has shown the most improvement is point guard Kris Dunn, who’s averaging 13.8 points on 44.2 percent shooting and 6.2 assists. He had 19 points and eight assists Monday.
“We’re definitely improving,” Dunn said of the Bulls as a whole. “The chemistry is there. In the first half of the games, when we were in that losing stretch, we didn’t have a good chemistry. No one like really knew their roles. We had a lot of things going on. And then once Niko (Mirotic) came back and everybody was fully healthy, everybody establish their role and the chemistry started to get a little better, I think we started to switch things.”
2. Earlier Monday, Hoiberg had emphasized pick-and-roll defense and assignment responsibility to his Bulls as the Rockets and their league-leading 3-point juggernaut awaited. His preaching didn’t have the intended effect, as the Rocket 20-of-54 on 3-pointers and hit eight treys in the first quarter in building an early 21-point lead.
It was the most 3-point makes the Bulls had allowed in franchise history.
“I don’t think we followed the assignments,” guard David Nwaba said. “They got a lot of open threes. But they just hit shots.
“It’s tough. They have no conscience shooting.”
The Bulls have allowed at least 110 points in six straight games, the first time they’ve done that since January 1986, per Basketball Reference. Several Bulls acknowledged the defensive slippage is worrisome, and Hoiberg called it “awful early.”
Eric Gordon and Chris Paul each scored 24 points for the Rockets, and Gerald Green had 22 off the bench.
“We just got to get back to having more grit out there,” Bulls wing Denzel Valentine said.
3. Perhaps the biggest event of the Bulls’ day wasn’t the game but rather an afternoon meeting in which management, doctors, trainers and coaches sat down with LaVine and his camp to discuss a return date for his season debut. LaVine has been out since undergoing left ACL surgery last February, and his return seems imminent. Oddly, the Bulls forbade Hoiberg on Monday evening from discussing the details of that earlier meeting. Instead, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson is planning to speak before Tuesday’s practice about LaVine’s timetable.
Hoiberg did confirm that LaVine didn’t have any setbacks. LaVine didn’t speak to the media Monday but was in good spirits, and he’s been participating in full contact practices without incident.
4. Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic missed Monday’s game with a stomach virus that he’s been battling since last Friday. That Mirotic was absent on a day in which he also ended up in the trade rumor mill was simply coincidence, but this point remains: He could be in his final week with the Bulls.
Because of the structure of his contract, Mirotic can’t be traded until next Monday at the earliest. If the Bulls have an offer to their liking, he’ll be dealt, as his camp reportedly hasn’t backed off its stance that it wants a separation from Bobby Portis, whose training camp punch caused Mirotic to miss the season’s first 23 games. Mirotic does hold a no-trade clause, but if the Bulls exercise his team option for 2018-’19, Mirotic no longer holds that privilege, the Tribune previously reported.
The Jazz have shown interest in Mirotic, according to reports. Utah entered play Monday four games back of the eighth seed in the West. The Bulls would like to acquire a first-round pick for Mirotic, though there’s some question as to whether the Jazz would part with their 2018 first-round pick as they entered Monday tied for the 10th-worst record in the league with quality draft class awaiting. What could affect that equation is if the Bulls would be willing to absorb any bad money from the Jazz beyond this season, but they haven’t shown a desire yet to do that. Utah does own all its future picks, so there’s flexibility there.
Mirotic is averaging a team-best 17.4 points on 48.6 percent shooting.
5. With Mirotic out, Bulls center Cris Felicio — who signed a four-year, $32-million contract last July — re-entered the playing rotation. It marked his first minutes since he had mop-up duty on Dec. 23 and came after a multi-game stint with the Windy City Bulls of the G League.
It didn’t go well for Felicio, who had four points and three rebounds in seven minutes. He was exploited several times in pick-and-roll and isolation situations by Chris Paul, who can make many look silly. But Felicio was brought back to the Bulls in part because he had previously displayed aptitude for defending in space, and he hasn’t done that well enough this season.
“I’ll go back and watch the film,” Hoiberg said. “It’s tough when you haven’t played as long as he has, to have to go out there, especially against this team.”
Felicio’s path to consistent playing time lies in the Bulls dealing either Mirotic and/or Robin Lopez.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.