The Houston Rockets’ James Harden came into the United Center Monday night as the reigning Western Conference Player of the Month and presumptive favorite for league Most Valuable Player. The Bulls Jimmy Butler not only outscored Harden, but Butler held Harden to three points and 0-9 shooting in the second half and drew a vital offensive foul on Harden in a tie game with 2:22 remaining.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Bulls shoot down Rockets

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By Sam Smith | 1.06.2015 | 3:08 a.m. CT

The Houston Rockets’ James Harden came into the United Center Monday night as the reigning Western Conference Player of the Month and presumptive favorite for league Most Valuable Player. The Bulls Jimmy Butler not only outscored Harden, but Butler held Harden to three points and 0-9 shooting in the second half and drew a vital offensive foul on Harden in a tie game with 2:22 remaining.

The Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard, who turned Pau Gasol into a subordinate player in Los Angeles a few years ago, had 12 points and one shot attempt in the fourth quarter against Gasol while Gasol blistered him for 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Nikola Mirotic, who was named December’s Rookie of the Month, supposedly couldn’t play the small forward position. But doing so the entire fourth quarter, Mirotic led the Bulls with nine of his 17 points and held Houston’s Trevor Ariza scoreless.

And the Bulls came back from an eight-point fourth quarter deficit to hold high scoring Houston to one basket in their last 11 attempts while the Bulls scored in their last eight possessions for a 114-105 victory.

So how’d you like them now?

“It was definitely a big win, a good test against a team that came to play, came to compete,” said Gasol, who scored 18 first quarter points in repeatedly shooting over Howard. “I saw guys ready to win the game and do what it takes. I like what we have, the way we are doing things; our potential, I think, is incredible.”

The Bulls now are 25-10, have won 10 of their last 11 and 13 of 15. Perhaps more impressively, they’ve won their last six straight over supposedly vaunted Western Conference teams, including highly regarded Portland, Memphis and Houston.

The Bulls got 22 points, five rebounds, three steals and perhaps the league’s best individual defensive performance from Butler given it was the almost unstoppable Harden, who scored the majority of his points early in game when he was being defended by Kirk Hinrich. Derrick Rose added 19 points and nine assists, including three in the last three minutes when the Bulls outscored the Rockets 19-5 to close the game. And rookie Mirotic added those 17 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and the effective game clinching three on a pass from Gasol with 39.6 seconds left and the Bulls hanging on to a 107-103 lead.

“Jimmy on both sides of the ball for us, he makes us go,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I thought Pau was terrific as well. He set the tone in the paint. That got us going. I thought Derrick was really aggressive tonight. I liked the way he played. A lot. Derrick’s decision making was great. The big thing was the attack, getting the ball up the floor quick, getting into the paint. Niko was terrific off the bench. He’s playing great basketball. There’s not much he isn’t doing. Shoots the ball, makes plays, rebounding, doing a lot of great things, playing more than one position. Joakim brought a lot of energy to our defense. We had a number of guys step up. And we got things done down the stretch.”

Thibodeau likes to spread the praise around. But it was deserving in one of the more entertaining games of the season, fast paced, high scoring with some of the best individual stars in the game and two of the winningest teams.

There were 14 lead changes and 15 ties, a game worthy of the boxing cliché of each team taking the best shot from the other and coming back to deliver one even better. And in the end it was the Bulls standing in one of those games you can look back on as a source and inspiration of confidence.

“We picked up our defense,” said Noah, who had eight points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. “It was a competitive game. It had almost a playoff feel to it, especially toward the end. Probably one of our biggest wins of the year.”

The Bulls have been getting a lot of those in this run since early December when they were 12-8. In addition to the six straight over Western teams, the Bulls have defeated Toronto, Washington and Miami in that period while being in the top 10 in scoring and the top five in field goal defense.

And while it didn’t look like a defensive struggle after a 34-33 Bulls lead after the first quarter, the Bulls ground the Rockets down the stretch after trailing 98-90 with 7:30 remaining and 100-95 with under four minutes.

And then it was the Bulls with pressure playoff defense, including from Mirotic, who started it off blocking Harden on a fast break drive at 100-95 Houston after a Butler turnover.

“Niko can rebound the ball, very unselfish player who plays the right way,” said Noah. “Being able to play the four legitimately and being able to play the three legitimately, there’s not too many guys in the league who can do that. He’s hungry to get better. I’ve been raving about him since training camp just because of his mentality. I know how much better he wants to get and the sky’s the limit for him. He’s a natural player, a hooper.”

Then it was Harden at his best with his clever dribble that has defeated every guard in the league. But dribbling left and then right back left and then right along the baseline, he never was able to get past Butler. Harden finally dribbled into a 24-second violation with still that five-point lead and about four minutes left.

“He’s an incredible defender,” Gasol said of Butler. “No question about it. For me, probably the best perimeter defender in the league right now. It’s great to see him play the way he’s playing on both ends of the floor. He’s not content and satisfied just scoring points. He’s been averaging over 22 a game, but he does an incredible job, which is much appreciated by us, on the defensive end.”

Gasol then cut off Ariza driving inside, forcing a turnover. That led to a runout by the Bulls and a pair of inside misses. The ball popped out to Rose, who went up to shoot. As the defense went toward him, Rose fired to Gasol, who put the ball in and was fouled for a three-point play to bring the Bulls within 100-98 with 3:19 left.

“Derrick made a lot of good plays that made the game easier for us,” said Thibodeau. “That was a very positive sign for the team.”

Harden shut off again by Butler passed out for a three that missed and then Butler tied the game at 100 with a transition jumper on a run out with Mirotic driving the ball up court.

“Just shooting the ball when I’m open,” said Butler, who remains expert in deflecting jumpers and praise. “My teammates are always finding me. Just got to step in and shoot with confidence.”

Butler then got a leading question prefaced with a comment that he’d probably play down his contribution. Butler laughed and said, “So why ask me?

“We’ve just got a really good team,” said Butler. “Everyone showed up tonight. MVP or not MVP (Harden vs Butler?), we wouldn’t have gotten this win if not for a team effort.”

It was as lively and enthusiastic as the United Center has been; it felt like May. At least until you went outside.

Harden went at Butler again, and this time came that offensive foul as Butler anticipated Harden’s move left. The Rockets would complain afterward about a 30-5 Bulls edge in free throw attempts, which is unusual. Though the combination of Butler’s positioning in front of Harden and the Bulls size with Gasol and Noah inside swarming around Howard left the Rockets to shoot six three pointers in the last three minutes. Tough to get foul calls that way as they were eight of 25 overall on threes. The Rockets are big believers in the analytics of shooting a lot of threes, which works in efficiency if you make them. They made two of 12 in the fourth quarter and zero fast break points.

“You also need to be able to score and this definitely is the best offensive team that I’ve been a part of in my NBA career,” said Noah. “ But you need to be able to play defense in this league if you what to win big. We showed some pretty good defense, especially down the stretch. We competed hard. It was fun to be a part of.”

The Bulls took the lead back for the first time since late in the third quarter as Harden fouled Gasol on a jumper after a good find by Rose. Free throws don’t count as assists, but Rose has been setting up many such plays lately. That gave the Bulls a 102-100 lead with 2:06 left. Then Smith, of all guys, made a three for a 103-102 Rockets lead with 1:46 left.

Good stuff, really.

Rose was doubled teamed in the deep left corner. But Rose lasered a pass diagonally cross court to Butler, who was open as the defense had to help in the middle with Howard doubling Rose. Butler made the three for a 105-103 Bulls lead with 90 seconds remaining.

“Everybody keys in on Derrick and Pau and they are great at finding the open guy,” said Butler. “Everybody is so unselfish and everybody wants everyone else to be successful.”

Ariza missed a three and Rose then blew into the middle and was fouled, making both for a 107-103 Bulls lead with 1:07 left. Rose had been outplayed in the first half by the aggressive Patrick Beverly, who has become known for delivering hard fouls. Chicagoan Beverly had taken down Rose hard several times earlier in the game, and Rose seemed to delight in blowing past Beverly at that crucial time, smiling and shaking his head as he walked to the free throw line.

Harden then bricked a step back three out of the timeout against Butler. The Bulls made it too tough to come back when Rose passed to Gasol, who forwarded it on to Mirotic in the right corner for that effective clinching three. Harden drove and got a couple of free throws with 33.5 seconds left. But Rose in the open court found Noah beating the Rockets out of the backcourt for a layup to assure there would be nothing easy or Harden.

Butler’s defense on Harden, the game’s best offensive player against perhaps the game’s best defensive perimeter player, was the highlight. There was Gasol’s East best 10th game of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Aaron Brooks had a pair of terrific lobs passes for a spectacular Butler dunk and moments later one to Noah early in the second quarter as the teams wen to a 62-62 halftime tie.

Taj Gibson had nine points with another thundering followup dunk and then there was Mirotic. With Mike Dunleavy out with an ankle injury, Mirotic not only filled in at small forward, which Thibodeau earlier in the season said he probably couldn’t do as a rookie and with so much Bulls interior depth, but finished with Gasol, Noah, Butler and Rose for the second straight game.

Not only does Mirotic play with an unrestrained joy, but he’s lively and welcoming in interviews, eager to practice his English, which is improving as fast as his game. And he possesses a fresh faced candor that’s both disarming and penetrating.

“Great feeling playing last minutes,” said Mirotic, who doesn’t fill in all the articles yet in conversation but is filling up the columns in the box score. “Feel very lucky and happy and have to say thanks to coach because he trusted me and let me play last minutes.

“That is what I was doing last two games, sharing the ball, take open shots, big for me playing defense. I was not sure if I can do that,” Mirotic admitted in his plainspoken sincerity. “I think it was not bad last two games. Players (to defend at small forward) faster and can shoot every position; Ariza and (Jeff) Green great players, handle ball all the time; it was hard defending pick and roll. I over switch with Jo and Taj and Pau on screens. I was trying to rebound and play good defense. It was really fun and I enjoy playing the three.

“Some people say yes, some people say he cannot play (small forward),” said Mirotic. “Most important thing what my teammates think and the coach. I’m here to help. I don’t care if I play three, four; just want to play and help the team. Big chance for me. It was good.”

As for his big late three pointer in the right corner, this is no ordinary rookie because this is no ordinary rookie. Mirotic has played in European championship games, and while he says playing in the NBA is more pressure filled because of the size of the crowds and arenas, he’s shown an uncanny calm for a young player.

“Was not play for me, definitely,” Mirotic said with his quick laugh about his three. “I was wide open in the corner waiting and they give me great pass. Before that I miss three, four threes while open. I say (to myself), ‘You have to shoot. I know I can make this shot. That’s why I am here. Why I am playing last minute; coach trusted me.’ So I take the shot.

“I not look tough,” Mirotic said when asked about the reputation for some European players. “I am no tough guy. But tough guy playing.”

The NBA is finding that out about a lot of Bulls players.