The high-flying Houston Rockets blast into town sporting a nifty 27-11 record to meet the Bulls in the first of two powwows scheduled for this season.
Long considered one of the game's most innovative offensive masterminds, Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun style of play has taken root in deep the heart of Texas. Houston ranks 2nd in the league in scoring (114.8), 1st in made 3-pointers (601 — 110 more than 2nd place Boston), 1st in 3-pointers attempted (1647) and 10th in shooting (46.4%). They also have scored 100+ points in 35 of 38 games this season.
Most of the Rockets' offense comes from behind the 3-point arc. On the year, they average a league-leading 15.8 made 3s on an eye-popping 43.3 attempts. Obviously, if the Bulls are going to give themselves a legitimate shot of coming out on top they are going to need to pay close attention to the 3-point arc this evening.
The Bulls, who enjoyed a strong month of December by winning 10 of 16, hit the floor tonight having lost four of their last five, primarily due to a lack of defensive focus as they've allowed each their last four opponents to post 124+ points — a franchise-first. Likewise, Houston really hasn't been playing great of late either, as they are just 3-7 over their last 10. Much like the Bulls, the Rockets' struggles can also be traced to shoddy defense. During its recent bad stretch Houston has ranked 28th in the league on the other side of the ball. In fact, opponents have scored 120+ points against the Rockets in five of their last nine.
Tonight Houston will be without the services of the NBA's leading scorer in James Harden (32.2 points) due to an injured hamstring. So far they have gone 1-2 in his absence, but recent free agent signee Gerald Green, who joined the team on December 28th, has been terrific off-the-bench, tickling the twine to the tune of 19.8 points on 53.2% shooting over the Rockets' last five games. Houston also boasts one of the game's top floor generals in Chris Paul, who also over the team's last five has been wheeling and dealing to the tune of 17.6 points and 10.2 assists. Veteran guard Eric Gordon, a 6'4 sharpshooter, has likewise stepped it up of late by averaging 22.5 points on 48.6% shooting to go along with seven assists over the Rockets' last two games. Clint Capela, a highly underrated, often-forgotten key cog is another impressive Houston weapon worth mentioning in that the 6'10 rim-protecting center averages a double-double (14.2 points and 11 rebounds) while playing just a little over half the game (25.9 minutes).
As for the Bulls, the team's offense is designed to get everyone involved in the action. Thus for it to click the ball must freely be shared and hop from one side of the court to the other to force the defense into a constant state of unrest. It is also important that the Bulls not rush or launch quick, contested shots. For the offense to be effective Chicago must stay poised and establish a free-flowing rhythm.
Thus whenever the Bulls take possession of the ball look for them to take it down the court quickly and station shooters equally along the arc to draw Houston's defense out from under the basket. Kris Dunn, Jerian Grant, David Nwaba and Justin Holiday will then need to aggressively drive the ball deep into the paint to cause chaos. If the Rockets slide down to the basket and/or look to trap or double-team, Chicago's attackers need to then make an adjustment of their own, locating an open teammate out on the perimeter for an uncontested shot.
In short, Chicago's task is to aggressively hit the hardwood from the opening tip and never back down. In order to create open looks at the rim, the Bulls have to unselfishly share the ball, passing it from side-to-side and from player-to-player. As collective unit, they have to show up with a hardnosed mindset, and commit to outworking Houston in every way imaginable. Hustle isn't necessarily an offshoot of having great talent, but rather it is the foundation of a blue collar work ethic and a willingness to lay everything on the line in order to come away with a victory. The Bulls are going to need to take that approach if they're going to end up as the last team standing tonight.