Keys to the Game: Bulls at Rockets (02.22.21)

The Bulls visit Texas this evening to meet up with the Houston Rockets to close out the season series. Chicago won the first matchup at the United Center back on January 18th, 125-120.

The Bulls jumped to a 15-13 lead with 3:31 left to play in the opening quarter and closed with a 13-3 run to gain an 28-16 edge at the break. The Rockets committed nine turnovers, aiding the Bulls' run. Chicago was able to extend its lead to 17 midway into the second, but Houston settled down and closed within a dozen points by halftime.

Victor Oladipo was making his Houston debut that night and scored 12 of his team-high 32 points in the second quarter.

The Rockets were able to close within three points midway through the third, but thanks to Zach LaVine, Chicago was able to keep them at bay. LaVine notched 14 of his game-high 33 points in the third quarter to keep the Bulls in control heading into the game's final 12 minutes.

Houston again was able to draw within three late in the fourth but couldn't complete the comeback as Chicago held on to win by five.

The Rockets actually outshot the Bulls, 52.3% to 46.7%, but Chicago commanded the glass, out-rebounding Houston 47-36, and was near perfect from the charity stripe, hitting 19-of-21 from the line (90.5%), while the Rockets misfired from the stripe, going 11-of-17 (64.7%). Chicago also had a good night from behind the arc, connecting on 20-of-45 (44.4%) shots from downtown. A total of seven Bulls, including all five starters, scored in double figures, led by LaVine's 33 and Lauri Markkanen chipping in with 18, including four treys.

Rockets big man, Christian Wood, posted 30 points, while veteran guard, Eric Gordon added 21 in the losing cause.

As has been stated in the past, a fundamental goal every game for Chicago is to get off to an aggressive start. The Bulls are at their best when they run downhill and establish a speedy pace from the jump. When Chicago collectively goes hard after every rebound and looks to get in transition, good things generally happen.

For Chicago's offense to run smoothly, the ball must freely jump from player-to-player. Quick, decisive passing forces defenses to overcompensate, and if they fail to successfully communicate, fall apart. Plus, quick passes typically open driving lanes to the rim and generates uncluttered looks for shooters outside.

The Bulls cannot allow their offense to slow or change into an isolation attack where one player attempts to go one-on-one. Continuous ball and player movement, in and out of the paint and all around the 3-point arc, is vital to creating an efficient offensive tempo. However, having said that, it is also imperative the Bulls keep turnovers in check and eliminate sloppy passing and ballhandling. Too many turnovers frequently lead to momentum swings.

The Rockets haven't won a game since Feb. 4, dropping each of their last seven. Tonight, they're likely going to be without veteran center DeMarcus Cousins (sore right heel), fellow giant Christian Wood (right foot sprain), as well as Oladipo (right foot strain). They also haven't played since last Wednesday after a wicked winter storm wreaked havoc throughout the Lone Star State. Currently, they're sitting in the basement of the Southwest Division, 5.5 games behind the Spurs for the top spot. In the Western Conference playoff picture, they're 13th, 3.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the final spot.

In order to come out on top tonight and capture a season series sweep, Chicago is going to need to assume command of the glass once again. They have to hit the boards hard at both ends of the floor, and limit second-chance scoring opportunities for the Rockets.

The Bulls also need to keep Houston out of the paint as much as possible.

Rockets playmaker John Wall is one of the fastest, end-to-end, players in the game today. Wall loves to beat his defender off the dribble and go to the cup. The Bulls need to focus on keeping him away from the rim. Over his last seven games, Wall is averaging 24.9 points and 6.9 free throw attempts. Keeping him out of the paint will keep him from making his way to the free throw line to inflict damage. Thus, Chicago's guards need to force Wall to live outside as much as possible, for doing so will limit his effectiveness.

Veteran guard Eric Gordon is another Houstonian worthy of attention. Gordon owns a smooth stroke from behind the arc and he's not shy about attacking the basket when he spots an opening. Like Wall, he is capable of getting hot in an instant, so attention must be paid, both when he has the ball in his hands and when he's hovering around the 3-point arc.

If Chicago shows up focused, determined, and aggressive, getting after it right away, they'll have a terrific shot of coming away with another victory.