Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Houston (03.10.17)

The high-flying Houston Rockets (44-21) blast into town looking to sweep the season series against the Chicago Bulls (31-33) this evening at the United Center. The two teams met in Houston back on February 3rd with the Rockets outlasting Chicago in overtime, 121-117. Chicago outshot Houston 48.0% to 44.9% that game, but the Rockets hit twice as many 3s to help pave the way for victory. League MVP candidate, James Harden, put forth another monster effort, scoring 42 points, snagging 12 rebounds and dishing out nine assists for the victors, while Michael Carter-Williams led the Bulls, posting a season-high 23 points to go along with nine rebounds and six assists.

Both the Rockets and Bulls have hit rough patches of late. Houston has dropped two straight to a couple of high-caliber teams (San Antonio and Utah), while Chicago has lost three consecutive times, two of which they should have handled (sub .500 teams Detroit and Orlando) without all that much trouble.

Although nobody ever likes to lose, the Rockets don’t have a lot of worries at the moment as they’ve played at an elite level most of the year and continue to sit comfortably as the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. The Bulls on the other hand can only be described as a roller coaster team, one that consistently beats top teams (Cleveland 3x, Boston 2x, San Antonio, Golden State and Oklahoma City), yet too often fall to opponents with terrible won-loss records (Denver 2x, Milwaukee 2x, Minnesota 2x, Miami, Orlando, Lakers). Where Houston is pretty much assured of making the playoffs once again, the Bulls desperately are trying to hang onto a postseason invitation, as they’re currently just a half-game ahead of both Miami and Milwaukee for the 8th seed in the East.

Long considered to be basketball’s most innovative offensive mastermind, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun style has taken root in the heart of Texas. Houston ranks second in the league in scoring (115.1), second in assists (25.3) and first in 3-pointers made (952) and attempts (2,627). They also have scored 100+ points in 58 of their last 59 games, including a franchise-record 51 straight.

Most of their offense comes from behind the 3-point arc. On the year, the Rockets average a league-leading 14.7 made 3s. They also lead the NBA in long distance dialing with an average of 40.4 attempts per game. Four Rockets have hit at least 150 3s, each placing within the league’s top-11. Harden is second in the NBA with 209 long balls, Eric Gordon is third with 206, Ryan Anderson is eighth with 169 and Trevor Ariza is 11th with 160.

Gordon generally is Houston’s first man off the bench, having done so in 51 of 59 games this season. The former Indiana All-American holds the second highest scoring average of any non-starter this year, putting up 16.9 points per game. The league’s top off-the-bench scorer also happens to be Gordon’s new teammate, Lou Williams, who joined the Rockets at the trade deadline last month in a deal with the Lakers. Williams, an eight-year pro, averages 18.2 points in a little over 24 minutes off-the-bench.

While D’Antoni is clearly pushing all the right buttons, Houston’s potent offense is unquestionably fueled by the aforementioned James Harden, who stuffs the box score each night with what can only be characterized as video game stats. The 6’5” hybrid guard is averaging career-bests all across the board — 29.1 points (3rd in NBA), 11.2 assists (1st) and 7.9 rebounds.

Harden has recorded 15 triple-doubles so far this season, and has notched five of those while putting 40+ points on the board. Usually high-volume scorers aren’t inclined to pass the ball, but Harden’s a different breed of cat as he’s a very unselfish teammate, as evidenced by the fact that he’s the league’s assist leader and has dished 15+ dimes nine times this season.

Obviously, if the Bulls are going to give themselves a shot of winning tonight they are going to need to pay close attention to Harden as well as the 3-point arc. Chicago’s defensive game plan has to include running every Houston sniper off the bend, otherwise it could be a long night for the home team.

Offensively, the Bulls and the Rockets are polar opposites when it comes to long distance dialing. Where Houston likes to fire away the minute they step off the team bus, Chicago makes and takes the least amount of 3s in the league. But where the Bulls make their bones is by grabbing a majority of every missed shot. At the moment Chicago is just a slight tick below Denver and Oklahoma City for the league lead in rebounding (Denver and OKC average 46.3 per game, Chicago, 46.2). However, when it comes to offensive board work, the Bulls sit at the head of the table, sporting a league-best 12.5 grabs a night.

Clearly, an advantage to being a strong rebounding team, especially on the offensive window, is that you give yourself extra chances to post easy scores from close range. The Bulls have done well in this aspect as they are the league leaders in second-chance scoring, notching 15.5 points per game.

Another important aspect of tonight’s game that Chicago needs to take care of is to consistently push the ball up the floor and keep it moving from player-to-player and from side-to-side. It’s vital the Bulls establish a quick pace, while at the same time take good care of the ball, keeping turnovers to a minimum. They can’t afford to employ a lot of isolation sets where ball and player movement cease to exist. For Chicago to succeed, everyone must be involved in the action.

As a team, the Bulls have done a tremendous job of repeatedly attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line, while at the same time, not committing silly fouls and keeping opponents off the charity stripe. So far Chicago has tossed a grand total of 1,527 free throws while the opposition has shot just 1,197 — that’s a +330 extra free throw attempts in favor of the Bulls.

As for taking advantage of those extra attempts, Chicago has connected 1,218 times from the line while opponents have knocked down just 921 — which translates to a net/+297 points for the Bulls.

Three-time Chicago All-Star, Jimmy Butler, in particular has done an incredible job of making his way to the free throw line this season. Not only is he putting up a career-best 23.8 points a game, but Butler ranks 3rd in the NBA in free-throws made (8.0), 4th in free-throw attempts (9.2), while converting at a career-high clip of 87.1%.

All in all, Chicago’s mission is to play fast and strong. Including tonight’s contest, there are just 18 games left to play before the playoffs. In order to give themselves a shot of returning to the postseason, the Bulls have play with an edge. They have to aggressively command the boards — at both ends of the floor — and look to run at every opportunity. The ball has to be freely shared and everyone has to be engaged, both offensively and defensively.

Overall, Chicago has to show up with a hardnosed attitude. Everyone must be committed to leaving everything on the floor. The Bulls have to consistently hustle back on defense and apply relentless defensive pressure.

Simply put, the Bulls have to really knuckle down and get after it. Every rebound, every pass, every shot, every possession and every little thing matters.

—    Anthony Hyde