It's difficult to write a preview about the Chicago Bulls and not be taken back to the past. In the shadow of Houston's embarrassing performance in New Orleans is the reminder that the last time the Rockets laid that big of an egg was against these Chicago Bulls in their building. Just a year prior to that, Houston blew the Bulls out of the United Center on Christmas Day.
With the roster turnover in the NBA, and especially common with the Rockets, it's easy to find connections between teams. Like when the Rockets played Miami, I could have said that both teams at one point had Shane Battier.
There's more than just a few connections between the Rockets and Bulls. Both are former employers of Omer Asik. The great Aaron Brooks used to be a Rocket. Nikola Mirotic's rights were traded from Houston to Minnesota for Donatas Motiejunas (Mirotic was traded later on draft night to the Bulls). Patrick Beverley is from Chicago and attended Marshall. Jimmy Butler is from Houston. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard played together in Los Angeles. The Rockets traded for Gasol in the infamous Vetoed Trade. Tom Thibodeau was an assistant to Jeff van Gundy in Houston. Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer played together at Florida. I'm sure I've missed a few but damn that's a lot.
Both teams come into tonight with 10 losses. Only one team can walk out with a chance to tie the NBA record for wins. A loss tonight and you might as well pack it up for the season.
Schedule breakdown: Both teams played on Saturday night at home. Houston beat Miami and Chicago sans Butler and Mike Dunleavy pulled away in OT to beat the Celtics.
Tip off is at 7pm CST
Point Guard: Patrick Beverley vs. Derrick Rose
The Rockets haven't had the pleasure of playing against Rose for two years. But three years ago when these teams matched up, the story ended similarly in both contests. On both occasions, the teams went into the fourth quarter locked into a duel. And on both occasions, Rose stepped up late and helped pull the Bulls ahead for good.
He can get into the lane at will and his floater is almost impossible to defend. If Houston can't stop his penetration then it's going to be another long night at the United Center. What's more, the Bulls have used both Rose and Brooks in late-game situations to great effect. Most teams have one player who they rely on to defend point guards. But practically no one has two of them. Rose is both quick and strong while Brooks is ultra-fast. Defending the two of them will be a nightmare and Houston will have to try to make Chicago pay on the other end by attacking Brooks.
Shooting Guard: James Harden vs. Jimmy Butler
Butler missed the last game due to bereavement leave. I don't know anything about the circumstances there but I'm tentatively placing him here. If he doesn't go, expect Kirk Hinrich to start here.
Butler's been on an absolute tear this season, averaging 22/6/3. He took a gamble on himself by not signing for anything less than the maximum in the offseason and that gamble has paid off. He'll command a max contract if he wants it this summer and there will be many teams vying for his services. We've spent much of the year debating Harden vs. Klay Thompson since that's where the media pushed the narrative, but they're starting to catch the Butler train. He's been a stud and will probably be Harden's biggest defensive test among all shooting guards should the Rockets match up that way.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs. Nikola Mirotic
Mirotic is shooting 39% from 3 and has the cojones to pull up from anywhere. Watching him play is fun because he doesn't fit the mold of a Thibodeau player at all.
It's been nice to see Beverley making his shots from distance again. Houston needs that in any way imaginable. While we expected Trevor's hot shooting to recede after the first five games, recede might be an understatement. It's practically cratered. But McHale has said that he doesn't mind the missed shots as long as they're open looks and as long as Trevor keeps playing his brand of tenacious defense. I'm prone to agree on that count. Houston probably wishes Ariza was closer to shooting 40% than 30% from outside, but with his defense you'll take a slightly lower efficiency from beyond the arc.
Power Forward: Donatas Motiejunas vs. Pau Gasol
Against Denver on New Year's Day, Pau Gasol almost got a triple double with points, rebounds, and blocks. He finished with 17/9/9 and then followed that up with 19/16/5 against the Celtics. Yes, he's averaging 7 blocks per game in 2015.
Stretch fours have given the Rockets nightmares in the past but lately haven't done as much damage with D-Mo and Josh Smith making life difficult for them. We'll see tonight how Gasol plays it. He's got the ability to play with his back to the basket and if he does the Rockets may put Dwight on him and switch their fours to Noah in the high post. No matter what, rebounds will be a premium in this game. The Rockets are ninth in total rebounds and the Bulls are fourth.
Yes, this is D-Mo's spot now because he's earned it. Also, for those of you who dislike how the Pistons let go of Josh Smith then went on a 5-game winning streak, fear not. The Pistons travel to San Antonio and Dallas for a back-to-back on Tuesday and Wednesday. Either they will lose and we won't have trolls coming over here to stir things up, or they will improbably beat one or two division opponents in their buildings. So it's win-win for Rockets fans.
Center: Dwight Howard vs. Joakim Noah
To steal a wrestling term, Noah is a babyface. As far as most of the NBA fanbase is concerned, he can do no wrong. He's a fantastic passer, an excellent defender, and possibly one of the most annoying players to go against. Usually the pests are demoted to Beverley status: you hate him unless he's on your team. But Noah has endeared himself to the NBA at large and is well-liked.
Dwight Howard, on the other hand, has been described as "literally Hitler." So yeah.
The Internet makes so much sense.
Rockets: Propeller Plane, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Joey Dorsey
Bulls: Aaron Brooks, Taj Gibson, Tony Snell, Kirk Hinrich, E'Twaun Moore, Mike Dunleavy
Prediction: Bulls win 105-91. It will be Josh Smith's fault.
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