WHO: Rockets 99, Bulls 93
WHAT: I referred to Sunday’s OT loss at home to the Pacers as arguably the most exciting game of the season for the Rockets. Scratch that. There is no doubt in my mind that Monday’s incredible win over the top team in the NBA – on their home court – easily now takes the cake. The Rockets avoided heartbreaking back-to-back losses in the middle of a gritty playoff race, and instead handed the Bulls their first set of back-to-back losses since February 2011. The win pushed Houston to 29-25 overall, still sitting alone at 8th in the West, and improved its dismal road record to 9-17. Interestingly enough, two of those road wins are at OKC and at Chicago. The Rockets now have some deserved time off before another back-to-back in Cali this weekend, against the Lakers on Friday and the Kings on Saturday. Who knows where they’ll be sitting in the playoff race then. Right now Houston is one game up on Utah for 8th, and two games up on Phoenix.
WHAT HAPPENED?: The Bulls’ reserves lifted Chicago to a 15-point first-half lead, and an 11-point advantage at halftime, as Taj Gibson, John Lucas III and Kyle Korver broke down Houston, played some sound team ball and led a stingy defensive effort that saw the Rockets miss 15 consecutive shots at one point in the second quarter, when Houston was outscored 29-14. But the tide turned midway through the third quarter. Down 60-46, Houston stormed back to tie the game at 60, and take a 71-70 lead on Earl Boykins’ jumper at the end of the third quarter. From there, the Rockets absolutely blitzed the Bulls, led by Boykins (9 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 4-8 shooting in 15 minutes) and Chase Budinger (13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 5-10 shooting, 3-4 3s, in 25 minutes), who drilled three 3s within a little more than 90 seconds of the fourth quarter for an 84-72 Houston lead. Just as the second unit buoyed Chicago in the first half, Houston’s own reserves (25 second-half points after scoring just 4 in the first half) led the way for the tremendous turnaround in the second, along with an aggressive, scrappy Rockets defense that forced 19 Chicago turnovers, including 10 in the second half. With Houston taking care of the ball on its own end, ending up with only 8 giveaways, that turned out to be the difference in this one, enough to where a late Bulls rally to within 4 was not enough, nor was Chicago’s 47-38 rebounding advantage, including 18 offensive caroms. Houston outscored Chicago 59-42 in the final two quarters, against a defense that is No. 2 in the NBA in points allowed per game (88).
SCOLA STARS: Luis Scola was absolutely crucial for the Rockets Monday. He was outstanding, excellent, perfect … deserving of any and all superlatives. I’ve dogged him all year, but credit where credit is due: he led the way against the Bulls, destroying Joakim Noah early and often in what was an odd matchup. With Carlos Boozer figuring to be the better defender, since he and Scola are similar players, Noah was given the task of guarding Scola. Noah, who prefers to patrol near the rim for his coveted blocks and rebounds, was forced to go away from his comfort zone away from the rim after Scola hit a few early jumpers, and that opened the lane for Scola for some drives, keeping the Bulls on their heels all night. Scola was brilliant, tallying 18 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 timely blocks, and playing some of the best defense I’ve ever seen him play. It was a masterful effort from the much-maligned power forward. Enough can’t be said.
WHERE’S DALLY?: For the second straight game, Marcus Camby started in place of Samuel Dalembert. Rightfully so, as Houston built an early 18-10 lead thanks to 3-for-3 shooting from Camby, all from long distance. As if his defensive leadership was enough, Camby showed some nice offensive flair and totaled 12 points, on 6-for-12 shooting, and 11 rebounds. But Dalembert came on in relief in the second quarter, playing 5:29 with 2 points, an assist and a rebound, and did not play in the second half. Now, I’m not sure if Dalembert is in the doghouse, and I completely understand starting Camby, but when the second unit’s offense is pathetic like it was in the second quarter, Dalembert should be more involved. His offense (8.1 ppg on 51% shooting 24 minutes per game this season) is underrated, with his ability to shoot a high percentage and score inside, or even with a midrange jumper that stretches to 20 feet. But that’s not the only thing. With his team being crushed on the glass yet again, Dalembert, who averages almost a rebound every three minutes and averages a steady 2.5 offensive boards a game, still sat again for most of it. It’s a curious situation, especially because I’d really like to see more of Camby and Dalembert playing together to shore up a Rockets’ interior defense that boasts a plethora of flaws. I figured the addition of Camby would only be a benefit alongside Dalembert. I never figured it’d all but force Dalembert out of the rotation altogether.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?: It means the Rockets are 2-1 on this brutal stretch against top-notch teams that started with Memphis on Friday. They could easily be 3-0, but they’ll take it. The Lakers loom big (no pun intended) on Friday, and the Kings the following day are not to be overlooked. The good news is the Rockets have three days to rest up, get some more practice time in and try and tune-up some things before a fast and furious closing stretch that has them playing 12 games in 20 days.