Houston Rockets Prepare To Battle the Bulls


This is what we call a heavy weight match-up as the Houston Rockets prepare to battle the Bulls in a showcase of two of the top teams in the Association. Further, the cumulative star power of these teams could light a city street. The question is can the Rockets get their recent penchant for yo-yoing under control to trump Chicago who is tied with Atlanta with the best record in the last 10 games (9-1).

Finding Consistency:

These two teams although very similar in make-up and in cross over stories have taken a very different path this season. They both began the season with nagging injuries which kept multiple players out of the line-up but Chicago appears to have found their stride having won  9 of their past 10 games. The Bulls have moved into second in the East and appear poised to leap to the top of the heap.

Conversely the return of Dwight Howard to the line-up did not immediately translate into wins and he looked out of sync with his team especially on the offensive end. Then GM Daryl Morey made 2 big moves bringing Corey Brewer and Josh Smith to the Rockets.

The transition has been bumpy with the Rockets posting a 5-5 record in their past 10 games and reached a crescendo this past weekend when the Rockets suffered their worst loss of the season in New Orleans. Then the very next night celebrated their best win of the season pummeling Dwyane Wade and company. Kevin McHale is pulling the strings that resulted in the Miami thrashing, but this is not the Heat they face tonight, so they’ll need to be locked in especially on the defensive end.

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Teams switching roles this season:

Examining these two teams from last season it’s like they literally replaced each other. Chicago has become an offensive juggernaut and lost a step defensively at least through the first third of the season. While Houston who were on fire offensively have been masters on the defensive end and lost a step offensively.

Recently the Rockets defense has waned, however I maintain it’s growing pains with so many moving parts within the roster. More concerning is Howard’s comments following the losses to Washington and New Orleans when he said the team was pointing fingers at each other. This is never a good sign and also isn’t something he should be sharing with the media/public.

I think we’ll see know in the next 20 games who this Rocket team are in terms of an identity and more so who the captain is. Neither Harden or Howard have been a-typical in terms of being demonstrative leaders. Yes, the team grabbed Josh Smith however I’m not convinced that was “for Dwight” rather he fit their needs at a bargain and for all we know there is internal concern regarding the long term health of Terrence Jones. The fact Howard was being played more with the reserves Saturday and Harden more with the starters may be the telling sign of who McHale sees as the star and leader.

Team Ranks:

Offense: The Bulls rank 7th and the Rockets rank 19th (but are climbing)

Defense: The Bulls rank 10th (but are climbing) and the Rockets rank 2nd

Net: The Bulls rank 7th with a +4.9 differential and the Rockets rank 9th with a +4.1 differential

Pace: The Bulls rank 15th with 96.14 possessions per 48 minutes and the Rockets rank 8th with 97.62 possessions per 48 minutes

I check ESPN John Hollinger daily ranks as I find his ranking incorporates the best data and pulse (though I wonder about his penchant for the Clippers who aren’t even in my top 10). Currently he has Houston ranked one spot ahead of the Bulls. I’m inclined to believe that ranking is based on the better defense and the Rockets harder strength of schedule.

Notable Stats:

  • As with all opposing teams Houston is light years ahead in terms of three point shot attempts with a league high 34 per game. Chicago gets up 13 fewer attempts (21) per game

Although the Bulls shoot a better average (36.1% to Rockets 34.5%) their makes per game of 7.6 is 4.1 fewer than the league high 11.7 threes the Rockets make per contest.

  • The Rockets have a decided advantage in steals ranking second with 9.4 steals per game while Chicago ranks 28th with 5.9 steals per game.
  • Chicago has an advantage in taking care of the ball ranking 12th in turnovers with 14.4 per game while Houston continues to toil in the basement ranking 29th with 17.3 turnovers per game
  •   Like the contest versus New Orleans the teams have a disparity in their in and out of paint ranks: Chicago ranks 6th in the paint with a +8.1 differential and Houston ranks 8th out of the paint with a differential of +7.9
  • Houston’s starting line-up ranks 4th with a differential of +13.6 a full 5 points ahead of Chicago who rank 9th with a differential of +8.4

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Walking Wounded:


  • Mike Dunleavy missed the Celtics due to an ankle injury and is questionable for tonight.
  • Jimmy Butler missed the Celtic game on bereavement leave. Twitter reports he is back with the team.
  • Doug McDermott remains out likely until the end of January

Jimmy Butler back with Bulls following 1-game absence http://t.co/EI5hvZF117 pic.twitter.com/LLTUesaAjy

— theScore NBA (@theScoreNBA) January 5, 2015


  • Terrence Jones remains out with leg/nerve issues
  • Alexey Shved remains questionable for tonight with a sprained ankle

Bench Mob:

Chicago has boasted the 11th ranked bench which likely would place higher if it weren’t for the number of injuries they’ve had to contend with. Over the season Houston has ranked at the very bottom in efficiency and scoring.

What has changed is Houston’s bench is improving specifically since the additions of Corey Brewer and Josh Smith. Over the course of the past 5-games they have climbed to 13th in scoring (35.6) and 5th in efficiency with a +9.8 that’s a jump of 24 spots. In the same time frame Chicago’s bench has experienced some slippage falling  from 11th in (+1.2) efficiency to 16th (+0.2).

Given coach Kevin McHale saw such positive results in moving Josh Smith to the bench and playing Howard minutes with the reserves odds are he’ll continue utilizing this reformatted system.

For all bench stats visit hoopstats.

Key Match-up:

There are so many intriguing match-ups this evening it’s impossible to limit to one. In fact let’s look at the entire starting line-ups:

The back court will pit fellow Chicago high school rivals and friends Patrick Beverley vs Derick Rose in what will be the first time they’ve faced each other in their professional careers.

Beverley per game averages of 11.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 39.5% from the field and oddly a higher 40.5% from three connecting on 2.5 a game. (of note his numbers have increased over his past 10 games specifically his are up 5.8 to and his assists are up to 4.8)

Rose per game totals: 17.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 0.6 steals while shooting 40.6% from the field and oddly a higher 26.4% from three connecting on 1.4 a game.

Potentially the most exciting of the starting five is at the shooting guard position where the current scoring leader  James Harden will face off against rising star and arguably the best two-way player at the position Jimmy Butler  .

Harden per game totals: 27.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals. His shooting features 44.2% from the field and 36% from three connecting on 2.6 per game.

Butler per game totals: 21.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals. His shooting features 48.3% from the field and 33.7 from three connecting on 1 per game.

The front court will feature Dwight Howard and reinserted Donatas Motiejunas versus two of the best passing big men in the NBA in Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol.

Howard per game totals: 18. points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.8 blocks. His shooting features 60.7% from the field.

Motiejunas per game totals: 10.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.6 blocks. His shooting features 48.9% from the field and 29.4% from three connecting on 0.5 a game.

Noah per game totals:  8.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.3 blocks. His shooting features 45.5% from the field.

Gasol per game totals: 18 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.4 blocks. His shooting features 47.5% from the field and 42.9% from three connecting on 0.2 a game.

And, just for good measure the Small Forward spot features Nikola Mirotec Chicago’s three point specialist versus two way Rocket Trevor Ariza.

Ariza per game totals: 12.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.8 steals. His shooting features 35.7% from the field and 31.3% from three connecting on 2.3 a game.

Mirotec per game totals: 8.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.5 steals. His shooting features 42.6% from the field and 38.5% from three connecting on 1.1 a game.

It doesn’t get much better than this. In comparison some immediate stats jump out. Howard and Gasol are a virtual mirror image of points and rebounds. The most shocking comparison was I assumed Harden’s numbers would be much better than Butlers (they aren’t) and I expected Rose’s numbers to be much higher than Beverley’s (they aren’t).

If there are any stats advantages Noah provides more intangibles than Motiejunas as does Ariza over Mirotec.

I can’t wait to see which front court out performs the other.

Jan 3, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) reacts to losing a ball out of bounds during the second half against the Boston Celtics at the United Center. Chicago won 109-105 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Keys to Winning:

  • Obviously limiting Rose as a driver and cutting down his passing lanes are key
  • Like the previous game the Rockets will need to ensure early usage of Howard and the combo of Demo, Howard and Smith will have their hands full keeping Gasol out of the paint and pushing him out to the three point line. They can cheat off Noah, but must be careful to limit his passing lanes as he’s a very adept passer for a big man.
  • The bench may be where the game is won or lost especially at the guard spot where veteran Jason Terry and Corey Brewer will be stacked up against Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich. Like DJ Augustin and Nate Robinson before him, Brooks is experiencing a rejuvenation of his career in Chicago. The other possible advantage will come via the absence of Mike Dunleavy should he miss another game. And of course there is always Josh Smith.
  • If Butler is back Harden will be tested on both ends and will need to bring his A game if he wants to get close to his average. However I expect McHale to continue utilizing his stars in the seesaw fashion he started versus Miami which will force Thibs to either play his starters extra minutes (nah, not Thibs) or respond with separating Rose and Butler.
  • As per above Houston have been riding a roller coaster having just experienced their worst loss of the season followed by their best win. They’ll need to pony up to start showing some consistency and this one is sure to be a litmus test of sorts.

The Pick: 

The odds makers have the Bulls favored by 3 points and an over under of 200 points with a ton of action on Chicago. I’m inclined to believe that means the zebra’s will have a say in the game (based purely on what I’ve observed this season when there is heavy action on one team over another). I’m excited for the match-up given all the key players are in action tonight (other than possibly Dunleavy and Jones).

Given Chicago are on a 9-1 stint and Houston is still adjusting to integrating their new players coupled with Howard only starting to get on a roll offensively I think this one will come down to the final minute with the Bulls pulling it out. Though I wouldn’t count out a miracle shot from Harden as he’s due for a big game akin to what we saw versus Portland.

Check back with us post game for our Rocket Fire Recap grading the players and tomorrow for our Rocket Science game analysis.