Bulls (15-12) 120, Rockets 97 (15-12)
On Christmas Day, the Rockets came into the United Center, knocked everything off the shelves and mantle and left the water running on their way out.
Early on, the matchup of the shooting guards, James Harden and Marco Belinelli, was the dominant storyline of the first quarter. As expected, Belinelli couldn't do much to stifle Harden's offensive game; Belinelli was pulled about 7 minutes into the game for Jimmy Butler. Harden was 2-for-3 from the field (4-for-4 from the line) for 8 points by the 2:55 mark.
Luckily, despite looking a little worn down Saturday night in Atlanta, Luol Deng was on his game early, with 8 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the first period. It was a swift first quarter, featuring exactly zero turnovers. The Bulls took a 5-point deficit (27-22) into the second despite shooting 0% from beyond the arc (0-for-5), featuring one pretty macabre airball from Kirk Hinrich.
However, with Noah on the bench in the second, Omer Asik was able to pick up some baskets at the rim. The Bulls offense also slowed down with the reserves in the game, allowing the Rockets to build a sizable 49-32 lead almost eight minutes into the second.
This isn't exactly news, but without Deng and Noah doing their typical iron man act, the Bulls have trouble both scoring and, to a lesser extent, defending. People will continue to complain about the minutes Thibodeau gives these two, but I'm not too sure that an alternative exists.
Jeremy Lin drove by everyone en route to a layup that extended the Houston lead to 21, forcing a Chicago timeout. At this point, Lin was 6-for-8 from the field with 12 points; unlike the last meeting, Lin was not being shut down this time around.
Simply put, when you lose the transition battle (Houston-16 pts, Chicago-4 pts) and allow the opponent to shoot 60% from the field, you probably won't be in the game. The 58 first half points the Bulls allowed in this one tied for the highest total thus far this season (the first being the 58 given up to Boston on Nov. 12).
Halftime Stats (Rockets 58, Bulls 41)Bulls: 0.89 PPP
- Deng: 4-11, 10 pts
- Noah: 3-3, 6 pts, 6 rebounds
- Gibson: 3-4, 8 pts
- Lin: 6-8, 12 pts, 5 assists
- Harden: 3-5, 13 pts, 5 rebounds, 3 assists
- Asik: 4-6, 9 pts, 10 rebounds
Things didn't get much better in the third. The Rockets continued the offensive onslaught, starting the second half with a 14-4 run. The Bulls defense was just about as porous as I've seen it in some time; the Rockets were able to drive and dish to open cutters for easy scores. Otherwise, the Rockets were simply outrunning the Bulls in transition and even off of makes.
After a Deng layup at the 7:22 mark, Lin brought the ball down the floor as if Houston was on a fast break. At least, it seemed that way because the Bulls were hardly in defensive position by the time he was at halfcourt. I'm not sure if that's fatigue or the Rockets being the far quicker team, but it isn't good either way.
Lin dribbled around for a bit at the top of the key. Deng stepped to him to challenge, but Lin just swung it to Parsons up top, who somehow managed to get all the way to the basket with minimal deterrence.
The Bulls' offensive struggles are so understood that someone might as well carve it into a giant marble slab and put it outside of the United Center: "Here run the Bulls/Eclipse 100, 90 even/From here you'll emerge, victorious."
The Bulls went down by 35 at the 5:00 minute mark of the third quarter, making it incredibly pointless to outline the rest of the proceedings. They did make a run late in the third and early on in the fourth, but at that point it was like trying to remove water from a sinking ship with a spoon.
In any case, this was the blueprint for beating the Bulls in 2012-13: have a modicum of athleticism, get out in transition and hit them when Deng and Noah happen to catch a minute or two on the bench.
Of course, it's easier said than done, as the Bulls typically play much better defense than they did tonight. This is going to happen from time to time, and there's not much utility in philosophizing about it too much.
The Bulls have a chance to redeem themselves tomorrow night at Indiana, whom they last played on Dec. 4, losing in an ugly game that ended in a controversial no-call. Despite Saturday's loss, the Bulls have been pretty good all season in back-to-back situations. A win tomorrow would prevent the Bulls' first 3-game losing streak since the LAC-Portland-Houston stretch from Nov. 17-21.