Keys to the Game: Bulls at Rockets (02.03.17)

The Chicago Bulls (25-25) charge into Southeast Texas this evening to take on the high-octane Houston Rockets (36-17) for the first time this season. Chicago blows into Space Town feeling confident after crushing both Philadelphia and Oklahoma City in successive fashion this week.

It all started Sunday at the United Center, where the Bulls charged to a 121-108 thrashing of the 76ers. Jimmy Butler led the way with 28 points and Robin Lopez added a season-high 21 points and had 10 rebounds, but the real story of the evening was just how well Chicago played up-and-down the roster. Overall the Bulls hit on 45-of-89 from the field (50.6%) and 8-of-14 from beyond the arc (57.1%), while wheeling and dealing 29 assists and turning the ball over on just 10 occasions. Chicago’s bench brigade played its best game of the year, outscoring Philly’s backups, 49-15. Doug McDermott posted 14 points, followed by Niko Mirotic and Paul Zipser with 13 apiece. Chicago’s bench shot 18-of-36 (.500) from the field, including 7-of-13 from distance and outrebounded their counterparts, 20-9.

The good times kept rolling along the next time the Bulls hit the hardwood, as they blew-out the Thunder down in OKC on national TV, 128-100, Wednesday. Once again Chicago’s lone All-Star, Jimmy Butler, led the way with 28 points, followed by Dwyane Wade’s 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Robin Lopez also left an indelible mark for the second straight game, posting 14 points on seven-of-eight shooting.

As a team, the Bulls didn’t cool off from the field either, shooting a season-high 60.5% overall, including 6-of-15 from downtown (40.0%). They also continued to play very unselfishly, posting 25 assists on 49 made shots, while turning the ball over only 9 times.

For the Bulls, tonight’s contest will be the second stop on a six-game Western Conference road swing spread out over the next 10 days. As for the Rockets, they take the court to close out the second half of a back-to-back set of games. Last night they fell apart late in front of their home fans, blowing a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to lose to Atlanta, 113-108, at the Toyota Center.

Overall, Houston’s 36 victories this season is the third highest total in the league, behind only Golden State (42) and San Antonio (37), and their 18-6 home record is also one of the best in the NBA.

Long considered to be one of the game’s sharpest and most innovative offensive masterminds, Rockets Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s “run-and-gun” philosophy has taken root deep in the heart of Texas. Houston ranks second in the league in scoring (114.0), second in assists (25.5) and first in 3-pointers made (764) and attempted (2,111). They have scored 100-or-more points in 46 of their last 47 games, including 39 straight.

Most of their offensive punch comes from behind the three-point arc. On the year, the Rockets average a league-leading 14.4 made 3s. They also lead the NBA long distance dialing with 39.6 attempts. Four Rockets have hit at least 130-or-more long balls, each placing in the NBA’s Top 10 in made 3s. Eric Gordon is Houston’s first man off the bench, and apparently he likes to launch from the moment he wakes up every morning. The former Indiana Hoosier ranks second in the league with 172 long-tosses. Fellow Houstonian, James Harden, is third with 162, while Ryan Anderson checks in at No. 6 (142) and Trevor Ariza at No. 9 (134).

While D’Antoni is clearly pushing all the right buttons, Houston’s potent offense is unmistakably fueled by the aforementioned James Harden, who literally stuffs the box score each night with what can be best described as video game stats. The 6’5” hybrid guard is averaging career-highs all across the board — 28.3 points (3rd in NBA), 11.2 assists (1st) and 8.0 rebounds.

Harden has recorded 14 triple-doubles so far, and has notched five of those while putting 40-or-more points on the board all by himself. Usually high-volume scorers aren’t inclined to pass the ball, but Harden’s a different breed of cat in that regard as he’s a very willing passer, as evidenced by the fact that he’s dished 15-or-more assists nine times this season.

Obviously, if Chicago is to give itself a chance of winning this evening they are going to need to pay close attention to the arc and consistently run every Houston sniper off the bend, which is something the Bulls have done fairly well up to this point.

The Bulls are an interesting case study as they are a top-five defensive team (giving up just 101.6 points, 5th best in the NBA) while at the same time ranking in the bottom half of the league in opponent field goal shooting percentage (.456).

Bulls opponents have been able to make a lot of shots, but overall they haven’t done so from downtown (on average Chicago allows just 8.8 3FGM, which is 6th best in the league). Bulls opponents have also found it hard to get the free throw line on a consistent basis (on average, Bulls opponents attempt only 14.1 FTs per game, which is the least amount of attempts in the league). Thus by holding foes to mostly two-point makes and limiting the number of extra/free points given up, Chicago has kept opponents’ scoring in check.  

Another important key this evening for the Bulls is totake command of the boards. Presently they lead the league in rebounding (47.1), while Houston is near the middle of the pack (No. 13, 43.9). Chicago is also parked at the top in offensive rebounding (13.0), while Houston is 10th (10.6).

Offensively, the Bulls and the Rockets are polar opposites of each another when it comes to long distance shooting. Where Houston looks to constantly fire away, Chicago makes and takes the least amount of 3s in the league. But where the Bulls make an impact better than any other team is grabbing a majority of every missed shot they take and cashing in on second-chance scoring opportunities. Chicago is the NBA’s best second-chance scoring team, averaging 15.6 extras a night.

Another vital deed the Bulls will need to accomplish this evening is to consistently push the ball up the floor and keep it hopping from player-to-player and from side-to-side.

Chicago has to establish a quick pace, while at the same time take care of the ball. They really can’t afford to employ a slow and deliberate pace by walking the ball up the floor and then employ a lot of isolation sets where a player will attempt to beat his defender one-on-one. For Chicago to achieve success, they have to make it a team effort where everyone is involved in the action.

As a collective unit, the Bulls have done an excellent job of making their way to the free throw line, as they’ve taken 1,237 trips to the charity stripe and connected 993 times for an impressive 80.3% success rate. Opponents, on the other hand, have only made it to the line 925 times (that’s 312 less than the Bulls), and hit 704 (that’s 289 less than Chicago) for a rather ordinary 76.1% rate.

In short, Chicago’s task this evening is to come out fast and strong and at no time slow-down or back-off. From the moment they first step-off the team bus, the Bulls have to be focused and sport a dogged attitude. They have to wrestle command of the boards — at both ends of the floor — and they have to play a very unselfish game. And last but certainly not least, they definitely cannot allow Houston’s bevy of snipers open looks at the rim.

-- Anthony Hyde