Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Rockets (01.18.21)

The Bulls return home from a swing through Oklahoma City and Dallas to take on the Houston Rockets this evening for the first time this year. The teams split a pair of preseason contests in Chicago last month, with Houston running away with a 125-104 victory in the opener, and the Bulls turning the tables two nights later with a 104-91 win of their own.

The Bulls hit the home hardwood off a 117-101 road win over the Dallas Mavericks yesterday afternoon. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak, and it also gave the Bulls a season series sweep of the Mavericks for just the third time in the last 24 seasons. Chicago shot 50% from the field, the sixth time it has done so this season. The Bulls also dished 32 assists on their 43 made field goals, which is also the third time they've registered at least 30 helpers this season. And after committing 24 turnovers Friday against the Oklahoma City Thunder in a frustrating 127-125 overtime loss, the Bulls tightened things up considerably against Dallas, committing only three miscues through halftime, finishing with 14, the last being a concession shot-clock violation with five seconds remaining in the game.

Lauri Markkanen, in his second game back in action after being sidelined for seven thanks to the league's health and safety protocols, led the Chicago attack with his first double-double, pouring in 29 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Garrett Temple came off the Bulls' bench and added 21 points while Zach LaVine also notched his first double-double with 10 points and 10 assists. All in all, six Bulls scored in double figures. But the real story of the game came courtesy of Chicago's bench mob, as the Bulls backups outscored Dallas' 61-22.

Houston comes to town after splitting a two-game set at San Antonio. The Rockets dealt former MVP James Harden last week as part of a four-way deal in which it received All-Star guard Victor Oladipo from the Indiana Pacers (amongst other compensation). Oladipo is expected to make his Rockets debut tonight against the Bulls.

For the most part, Houston has primarily been depending on center Christian Wood to lead their offense. Wood, who signed as a free agent during the league's brief offseason, is averaging 23.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 0.6 steals in 33.8 minutes per game. He is shooting well, connecting on 52.2% from the floor, 34% from beyond the arc, and 65.2% from the free-throw line. In his last game against the Spurs, Wood enjoyed a career night, playing 41 minutes, finishing with 24 points, 18 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks.

So far Houston has been fairly average defensively, giving up 111.5 points per game, good for 17th in the NBA. In their last game against the Spurs, they allowed 103 points on 40-of-100 (40%) from the floor, 5-of-24 (20.8%) from beyond the arc, and 23 free-throw attempts. If the Rockets can continue to limit the amount of three-pointers made against them, it will certainly help in the long run.

As for the Bulls, they've been a high-powered offensive threat, averaging 116.8 points per game, good for 4th in the league. Defensively, though, it's a completely different story, as the Bulls rank 28th by surrendering a whopping 120.0 points. Chicago is also near the bottom when it comes to turnovers, committing 17.2 per game. If the Bulls hopes of becoming a playoff contender are to come true as this season goes on, that amount of fumbling can't continue.

In order for Chicago to continue growing and succeed they need to keep generously sharing the ball from player-to-player and moving it from side-to-side, forcing their opponents to burn energy on defense. Swift, deft passing will also open driving lanes to the basket and help to generate uncontested shots from outside.

The Bulls need to play fast, but as mentioned above, they can't continue losing control of the ball at their current rate. They also can't afford to stand around and watch one of their teammates go one-on-five, either. Continual player and ball movement in and out of the paint will assist the team to get into a free-flowing offensive rhythm.

A primary key to realizing success, not only tonight, but going forward, will be for the Bulls to continue improving the team's capacity to communicate and trust each other, both offensively and defensively. Night in and night out, Chicago must produce a hardnosed effort, especially when it comes to commanding the boards, and controlling the paint.

If the Bulls can keep turnovers under control, and outwork Houston not only on the glass, but by relentlessly battling for every loose ball and long rebound, they'll give themselves a shot of coming out on top by the end of the night.