The Chicago Bulls suffered their first back-to-back losses of the season Wednesday night in Houston, falling to the lowly Rockets 118-113 despite the return of All-Star center Nikola Vučević.
Vučević returned from a nearly two-week absence after spending 11 days in isolation following a positive COVID-19 test on Nov. 11. He was restricted from training during that time, missing the team’s five-game West Coast trip and two subsequent home games.
Coach Billy Donovan held Vučević to 6½ minutes per quarter Wednesday, rotating the center on and off the court with the goal of regaining his fitness without exhausting him.
Even in those limited minutes, Vučević still played as a diminished version of himself, particularly on the defensive end. He ended several plays in the second half with his hands on his knees, visibly struggling for breath.
Despite exhaustion and an understandable layer of rust, Vučević finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. But the center fouled out with 2 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the game, sitting on the bench as the Bulls fumbled a loss to the worst team in the NBA.
“I still need a little bit of time to get back to 100%, but I felt like I was still able to impact the game and do some stuff out there to help the team,” Vučević said. “I was supposed to only play up to 20 minutes, but I felt pretty good and obviously we were in a tough spot, so I told Billy I can keep going. Hopefully it won’t take too long before I get back to where I was.”
Guard Alex Caruso also returned after missing Monday’s game against the Indiana Pacers. Caruso’s minutes weren’t restricted, but he wore a brace on his left wrist for the first half. The guard bruised the wrist during the West Coast trip and aggravated the injury Sunday against the New York Knicks.
Caruso finished with 15 points, knocking down a pair of crucial fourth-quarter 3-pointers.
The opening of the game seemed to signal smooth sailing for the Bulls, who hadn’t dropped consecutive games this season. The Rockets had only a solitary win entering the game, struggling to post results amid a rebuild focused on developing a young roster.
Lonzo Ball sank five 3-pointers and Ayo Dosunmu launched skyward for a thunderous dunk in the first half. Zach LaVine continued his scoring flurry, finishing with 28 points after draining his 900th career 3-pointer. But the Rockets stuck around in nagging fashion as the Bulls continued a sluggish style of play.
Caruso and Vučević were expected to bolster the Bulls defense after a dismal night against the Pacers on Monday, but the Bulls continued to struggle to slow opponents’ shooting in the second half. After the Bulls held a lead from tipoff, the Rockets snuck back into the game and jumped ahead in the third quarter. Both teams traded punches, but the Rockets ended the quarter with an eight-point lead after outscoring the Bulls 35-18.
“We’ve got to find a way to get ourselves amped up to play, ready to play, whatever the word is because … when we came out, we gave them life instead of generating our own life,” Donovan said. “I could just see the disposition. We just were lethargic, and they were just more aggressive.”
The Rockets stayed in the game despite the early exit of Jalen Green, who left with an injury in the second quarter after an 11-point start to the game. Bench players Danuel House Jr. and Alperen Sengun stepped up in Green’s absence as the Rockets bench outscored the Bulls’ reserves 59-26.
DeMar DeRozan suffered another off-shooting night, missing all four of his 3-point attempts in a 17-point performance. He shot 6 of 19 overall.
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The Rockets stretched their lead to 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Bulls reignited their scoring and sliced their deficit to five in a span of only 1 minute, 25 seconds with a LaVine free throw and basket and a 3-pointer from Caruso.
The Bulls’ momentum was slowed when Ball hit a 3-pointer, only to be called off for an offensive foul as he came down from his shot. Donovan challenged the foul, but officials upheld the decision, telling the coach that Ball grabbed his defender as he went to the ground.
“I don’t quite understand it because I couldn’t see on the video,” Donovan said. “I was told is that he shot it, he came down and fell down and kind of grabbed the guy. Now I didn’t see that, but to me — to take away a 3-point shot … they said they had a full view on the replay thing to look at, but as they were explaining it to me, in all honesty, it made zero sense to me.”
On the heels of their first consecutive losses of the season, the Bulls are seeking a spark.
Vučević could provide that answer, but until the big man is fully healthy, the Bulls need to look elsewhere for consistency.
“We have to establish our way of playing on the other team for 48 minutes,” Vučević said. “When we do that we’re a good team and we give ourselves a very good chance.”