Keys to the Game: Bulls at Rockets (12.01.18)

The Bulls and the Houston Rockets close out their season series deep the heart of Texas. Tonight’s contest also marks the conclusion of a back-to-back set of games for both as the Bulls were in Motown yesterday to take on the Detroit Pistons while the Rockets battled the San Antonio Spurs in the Alamo City.

All systems were a go for Houston last year as they launched their way to a franchise-best 65-17 record in capturing the Southwest Division crown as well as the No. 1 seed in the West. However this season hasn’t gone as smoothly. Prior to last night in San Antonio they had lost four straight and sported a 9-11 record. At home against Dallas on Wednesday, they scored the first seven points of the game but ended up getting stampeded 36-21 the rest of the quarter. After the dust settled at the end of the night it was the Mavs heading home with a smile after thrashing the home team, 128-108.

Houston’s roster is simply too potent to hover around .500 for much longer. Chicago on the other hand has been forced to fight for survival most of the season thanks to a slew of injuries to a number of key players. With perennial All-Stars (and possible future Hall of Famers) James Harden and Chris Paul leading the way, many expected the Rockets to seriously contend for the 2018-19 NBA title. However pesky injuries to both have forced them to miss a handful of games, thus it’s proven difficult for the team on the whole to discover a comfortable rhythm. However, when Harden and Paul are on the floor — especially together — the Rockets can be downright scary and a lot of fun to watch.

Harden is a scoring and passing machine. Entering last night he was putting up 31.1 points and 8.7 assists per game. Against Dallas the other day he posted 25 points and dished a career-high tying 17 assists. If that’s not enough to impress, he also collected 11 rebounds and 6 steals, joining Hall of Famer Magic Johnson as the only player in NBA history to post those numbers in a single game. Over his last three (not including last night) Harden has averaged 39.7 points, 14.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 3.3 steals.

Paul, on the other hand has missed three straight with a tight hamstring but was expected to play against the Spurs. If he does his availability against the Bulls this evening will likely be up in the air since this is the second of a back-to-back set of games.

Without Paul this year Houston has gone 0-5 after going 15-9 last season. Prior to his latest setback he was putting up 20.2 points while shooting .539 percent from the field.

Currently the Rockets lead the league in 3-point attempts (42.0) and rank 2nd in connections (14.2). Once their shots begin to fall with more consistency (currently they’re sitting at 33.8 percent from the arc / 24th in the league) — and if history teaches us anything, they most definitely will begin to fall more often — every opponent better duck for cover.

Tonight the Bulls will not only need to keep close tabs on Harden and Paul, but also veteran 6th man sniper Eric Gordon (16.2 points) as well as forward PJ Tucker (8.0 points, .417 percent from 3), as both can get hot at a moment’s notice and turn the tide of a game. Defensively, Chicago can’t lose sight of any of them, but especially Harden when he hovers around the 3-point arc.

Rockets center Clint Capella is another game-changing weapon in Houston’s arsenal. He won’t hurt you from far away, but where he cashes his checks is on the boards and protecting the rim, as well as his ability to run the floor and finish with a flurry. Bulls rookie center Wendell Carter Jr. will really need to stay out of foul trouble while keeping up with Capela who puts up 17.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a night.

As for Chicago, they are at their best when they establish a fast pace and pressure opponents to run with them. It’s also essential they hold their own, if not completely wrestle control of the boards, as doing so allows them to speed up the game and consistently get into transition to score easy buckets on the fly. Most nights the Bulls have to turn games into track meets to be successful. When running isn’t an option, they need to wisely spread out all along the 3-point arc to open the middle of the floor to draw the defense to the perimeter and away from the basket, and then aggressively go on the attack. Fifth-year shooting guard Zach LaVine has been absolutely terrific doing just that, and thus it’s not all that surprising he’s enjoying a breakout year. Heading into last night he had posted five straight 20+ point scoring nights and 19 on the year. He currently ranks 9th in the league in scoring (25.6), 7th in free throws made (6.2) and 10th in free throws attempted (7.1) per game, while also averaging a career-best 4.6 assists.

Offensively it’s also important for the Bulls to share the ball with one another while keeping turnovers in check. Crisp and steady passing oftentimes forces defenses to scramble and break down. The Bulls have to make sure everyone is involved on offense. They can’t slow their game down and go at Houston with a series of one-on-one battles. To put points on the board the ball must hop from player-to-player and from side-to-side to expose cracks in the defense.

To pull off an upset the Bulls have to aggressively come out of the gates and play with an edge tonight. They have to be willing to be the first to dive on the floor after a loose ball and the first to fight for the rebound to give themselves a shot of coming out on top.