Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Rockets (11.03.18)

The Bulls and the Houston Rockets meet up at the United Center in the first of two scheduled for this season. The Bulls will visit Space City to conclude the season series on December 1st. Tonight's contest also marks the second of a back-to-back set of games for both teams, as Chicago took on Indiana last night at the United Center, while the Rockets were in Brooklyn for a date with the Nets.

Last year all systems were a go for Houston as they seemingly launched and connected from long distance at will on their way to posting a franchise-record 65 wins during the regular season and reaching the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four seasons. However, so far nothing seems to be going their way as they are off to the second-worst start in their team's history.

Prior to last night's in Brooklyn the Rockets were playing without All-Star James Harden thanks to a strained left hamstring. His availability against the Nets was doubtful before the game, as he and the team were shooting for a return tonight in Chicago. Harden, who won the NBA's scoring title last year, is averaging 28.5 points on 46.8 percent shooting so far this season.

Over their last three games (two without Harden) Houston has averaged just 95.7 points after putting up 116 per night in the first three of the season. Prior to last night in New York, their most recent loss occurred in front of their home fans on Tuesday (104-85) to the Portland Trail Blazers. Houston never led in the contest and shot a miserable 27.1 percent in the opening half, falling behind by as many as 22 in the second quarter. For the game the Blazers outshot the Rockets 47.5 percent to 32.5. The Rockets also connected on just 23.3 percent from distance and 56.5 percent from the charity stripe. Houston's Chris Paul posted a team-high 17 points and a game-high nine assists, while center Clint Capela chipped in a double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds.

You never know, but tonight's contest could easily end up with more than a few light bulbs burning out up on the scoreboard. The Rockets are simply too good and far too offensively explosive to wallow in a scoring drought for much longer, especially if Harden returns. They currently lead the league in 3-point attempts (41.5), much like they did last year. Once their shots begin to fall — and if history teaches us anything, they will — opponents will need to duck for cover.

Tonight the Bulls will certainly need to keep close tabs on Harden if he plays. Prior to being injured the 10-year veteran put up 36 points and 31 more in the first two games of the season, and then 29 the last time he took to the hardwood. But scoring isn't his only skill, as Harden's also an incredible passer, averaging 8.6 assists.

Other sharpshooters Chicago needs to pay attention to this evening are veterans Eric Gordon and Gerald Green, both of whom are capable of getting blistering hot and turning the tide of a game in a moment's notice. Defensively, the Bulls cannot lose sight of either man, especially whenever he hovers around the arc.

The aforementioned Clint Capella is another game-changing weapon for the Rockets. Capella won't hurt you from far away, but where he makes an impact is his ability to run the floor and defend and finish at the rim.

As for the Chicago Bulls, they are at their best when they establish a fast pace from the opening tip and pressure their opponents to keep up with them. It's especially important that they wrestle command of the defensive glass and get out in transition as much as possible. A fast pace denies defenses the opportunity to set up and shut down driving and passing lanes to the hoop. Chicago needs to exploit its youth and athleticism by turning the game into a track meet. When the Bulls do look to run a halfcourt offense, they'll need to spread out all along the three-point arc to open up the middle of the floor and draw Houston's defense out to the perimeter and away from the basket. It is also vital Chicago does a good job of generously sharing the ball while keeping turnovers in check. Crisp and steady ball movement often forces the defense to overreact and scramble as communication has a tendency to to break down.

It's also vital the Bulls look to get everyone involved on offense. They simply can't slow things down by turning their playbook into a series of one-on-one battles. For them to put points on the board the ball has to jump from player-to-player and from side-to-side to uncover open looks at the basket from both the arc and driving lanes through the paint.

Lastly the Bulls need to storm out of the gates as soon as the game tips off and stay focused and determined throughout. Even though they are forced to play without the help of four key players — Kris Dunn (left MCL sprain), Lauri Markkanen (right elbow sprain), Bobby Portis (right MCL sprain) and Denzel Valentine (left ankle sprain) — Houston won't take it easy on them. Every Bulls player that steps onto the court is capable of delivering high energy and providing maximum effort. As battered and bruised as they are they have to play with an edge. They have to be the first to dive after a loose ball and the first to grab a rebound to give themselves a chance to be the last team standing at the end of the night.