CHICAGO | It's pretty simple, really. The Rockets and the Bulls are both longshots to get into the playoffs this season. The Bulls trail a trio of teams by three games in the loss column for the last spot in the East. The Rockets are tied with the Grizzlies in the loss column, with both teams trailing the eighth-place Blazers by four games by that measure. With just about 15 percent of the season remaining, both teams need to win every winnable game from here on out, or else the season ends on April 14.
The Chicago crowd was really into Monday's game, won 98-88 by a Bulls team that just recently suffered a 10-game losing streak. Derrick Rose is back after missing time with a wrist injury and is already in top form. Joakim Noah is playing limited minutes--just one six-minute run each half. But he still managed to impact the game with his hustle and skill under the basket, traits much appreciated by the United Center faithful.
The game became intense during the third period. The Bulls went on a run to turn a five-point halftime deficit into a 13-point lead. What followed was what venerable NBA writer Sam Smith called "flop-a-palooza" as a series of close calls went against the Bulls. Finally, normally stoic Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro had seen enough and charged onto the court. Hard-ass official Bob Delaney (of the "Donnie Bosco business" as one patron sitting near me said) T'd Del Negro up twice in rapid fashion. The result was Del Negro's first career ejection. Oddly enough, the borderline calls incensed the crowd, but it also helped keep the energy in the arena at a fever pitch. The Bulls held off the Rockets and with a favorable schedule coming up are still harboring hopes of making one last postseason push.
The loss was one the Rockets really couldn't afford. Houston has a brutal finishing schedule. But, then again, this season has really been about next season for the Rockets. You can say the same thing about the Bulls. Perhaps next season when Houston makes its lone appearance in Chicago, the stakes will be even higher than the push to salvage an eighth-place conference finish.
Next up for the Bulls is a crucial game on Thursday at home against Miami. The twin goals will be to not only pick up a game on one of the teams Chicago is chasing, but to also issue a beating so thorough that Dwyane Wade immediately abandons all hope for the Miami franchise. After that, the Bulls have the following schedule, home games in caps: NJN, det, PHX, was, CHA, MIL, CLE, chi, tor, BOS, cha. The hardest games are at home and you have to feel like all home games are winnable. Plus there are a number of games against the teams immediately above the Bulls in the standings. Stay tuned.
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 22 133.8 .639 .286 .333 .092 6.73
Second Quarter 27 90.3 .400 .000 .160 .113 6.05
Third Quarter 23 57.7 .136 .188 .318 .177 3.65
Fourth Quarter 23 96.5 .375 .357 .167 .132 4.50
FIRST HALF 48 109.8 .500 .150 .233 .105 6.39
SECOND HALF 45 77.2 .261 .364 .239 .079 3.95
FINAL 93 94.5 .376 .220 .236 .129 5.24
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 22 138.4 .563 .545 .125 .138 6.04
Second Quarter 27 67.7 .361 .250 .278 .301 4.56
Third Quarter 23 106.5 .575 .200 .050 .089 5.41
Fourth Quarter 23 114.1 .563 .333 .500 .219 5.14
FIRST HALF 48 99.4 .476 .391 .190 .230 5.30
SECOND HALF 45 110.3 .569 .185 .250 .085 5.22
FINAL 93 105.2 .519 .333 .218 .193 5.29
NOTE: THCH is an estimate of team touches per minute
GAME FLOW COMMENTS
(These are the notes that I typed to myself during the game. Presented as typed ... no attempt at cleaning them up or to provide context.)
FIRST QUARTER: Deng still out, Rose starting, Noah not starting but will play. Battier out for Houston ... Rose vs. Brooks may be too quick of a matchup for my old eyes ... Rose has taken more threes since coming back, but you can see that the distance is just beyond his range at this point ... From 19-20 feet, Rose is increasingly deadly and it'd make him just that much more efficient to increase that range by another four feet or so, though he's never going to be Steve Nash ... Bad transition D -- Taj shouldn't be getting beat down the floor by Scola, who wasnt even running that hard ... Houston has Ariza on Rose ... Chi up 13-10 early, good pace, Rose looks terrific ... Bulls aren't sending many guys to the offensive glass -- no more than one. Vinny is overly fearful of Houston's transition game, I think ...
SECOND QUARTER: Vinny starts small with Pargo / Rose / Flip ... Rockets have Jefferies / Brooks / Budinger / Lowry / Hill ... As good as Warrick is in space, his lack of strength hurts him in traffic ... Love Pargo, but he's been trying to do too much in his increased minutes & it's hurting the team ... Noah checks in at 7:45 and gets a really nice ovation ... Rockets motion offense lacks motion ... How'd everybody miss so badly on Budinger. Kid can play. 5 quick pts for CB--Hou up 44-40 w/ 5:14 in 2Q. TO ... Brooks giving Rose fits with pressure in backcourt, tho he's matced w/ Hinrich. Lowry has been on Rose for awhile and is doing well ... Noah running court well and just got a tip jam and a defensive board after basket, really bringing energy to the crowd ... Watching Brooks, I can't believe he doesn't get more steals. His percent is 1.2, right at his career level and far outside the leaders. Houston is 23rd in steals despite all their quickness and athleticism w/ Brooks, Ariza and Budinger, so it must be philosophical ... 53-48 HOU at the half.
THIRD QUARTER: With Taj & Miller, interior passing is one of the best things the Bulls have going for them right now, though it's not bad when Noah is in there, either ... Scola just has a knack for getting easy baskets. That game he had 44 points had to be like torture for whoever they played ... Brad Miller was just the proud beneficiary of cherry picking. Sometimes it pays to not run down the floor ... Pace has slowed ... JJ just got a hoop in transtion, he's got 4/5/3, Bulls go up by 1 ... Then JJ picks up 4th foul. Well, he's a rookie. Here comes Flip ... If the Bulls aren't going to use Devin Brown and they are really serious about making a playoff push, they should buy him out and sign a D-League scoring 3 ... Mike Harris would fit the bill if he's between 10-day contracts. I lose track with him ... Bulls can easily absorb another guy and avoid the tax ... Mr. Efficiency: Flip has 13 points to lead Bulls on just five shots ... Hinrich 3 puts Bulls up 8, outscored Houston by 13 in Q ... Warrick layup makes it 10 and 15, crowd really into the game ... Bad block call on Rose vs. Lowry has crown incense. And Rose ... Another bad call and VDN goes beserk. Got himself kicked out. Like the spunk, but the free throws brought Houston within eight. Then another ticky tacky foul on Warrick and crowd is ready to rush the court. Bad call, too. More FTs and Houston w/i 6 ... 72-66 Chicago at end of 3Q as Houston closes with 7-0 run.
FOURTH QUARTER: Bulls missing Vinny's leadership evident in missed layups ... When Warrick is iso'd on the block, he always the ball until all the cutters have cleared out and acts like there is no one to pass to. That way, you see, he HAS to shoot ... Taj outworks Scoa and Budinger on a couple of tips, them throws it down and draws foul. Bulls up six pending FT. It's 7 ... Rose strokes a 3. Looked good on that one ... Budinger's shot is off -- he overshot by two feet on one three, then by just a foot on his last one ... Rockets are down to 3 bench players ... Rose just took my breath away with a layup on which he took off about 10 feet from the rim ... Noah had 4 pts 5 ast 1 ast 1 blk in 6 min in 1H, he's coming back now to finish ... You can see that Noah is a step slow on defense. Ariza just drove and Noah's feet just wouldn't get him over to cut off the drive ... Miller misses 2 FTs, Bulls are 11-of-18 ... Brooks 3 brings Houston w/i 6 ... Rose has done great job on Brooks; Brooks hasn't guarded Rose all game ... Ariza steal & layup, Bulls up 85-81 w/ 2:10 to go. Bickerstaff takes a TO Hou on 12-3 run ... Rose has scored twice out of TO (12 of 22) sandwiched around Brooks 3, 89-84 w/ 1:08, Scola going to line after nother iffy call ... Hits 2, it's 89-86 ... Hinrich 3, Bulls up 6 TO Hou -- :48.3 ...
1. Healthy bodies make a difference.
It was hard not to watch Monday's game and think about the players you weren't seeing. Derrick Rose is back for the Bulls and his presence is the difference between the Bulls having a chance to win and not. However, with Luol Deng out, Vinny Del Negro was forced to play Flip Murray at three for much of the game. Murray responded, scoring 18 points on just eight shots, in 35 minutes. Also, Joakim Noah was limited to 12 minutes, during which he had four points and six rebounds. For the Rockets, there was of course the hole in the middle that's been there all season. However, Shane Battier missed the outing with an MCL sprain that will keep him out for 10 days and David Andersen sat out with a sore back. Making matters worse, Jared Jeffries left Monday's game with a strained left Achilles and rookie Jordan Hill had to be helped off the court after spraining his ankle during the third quarter. By the end of the game, Houston had just three players on the bench and one of those was Hilton Armstrong.
2. Dreaming of Yao.
The Rockets have gone to an up-tempo attack this season with Yao Ming out for the entire campaign. The result is an offensive rating more or less on par with what Houston has done the last three years. The defense, however, has tumbled from fourth to 14th. So how has this transition been for the Rockets?
"We've been able to do it," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said before the game. "It's what we had to do. We're a perimeter team now. So we've tried to get out in the open court. Usually when you do that, you're a little better defensively, but we haven't been because we lack size under the basket."
Is it safe to say the Rockets have missed Yao more on defense than offense?
"It's hard to say that because he's a guy that can get you 20 every night, but certainly on defense we miss him because he changes shots. There's a foot difference between him and the guy we're starting at center now." (Chuck Hayes)
3. Derrick Rose ... he's not just for offense anymore.
Rose hasn't been known as a stopper thus far in his young NBA career. However, a few more performances like the one on Monday and Rose will turn that reputation around in a hurry. Rose blanketed Rockets guard Aaron Brooks all night, holding him to nine points on 3-of-17 shooting. Rose had the size and strength advantage, but was able to stay with Brooks on the quickness front, something that Brooks doesn't see very often. What's more, you could see Rose digging in for each and every defensive possession. Yet the energy expended in chasing Brooks did nothing to deter Rose from controlling the game on the offensive end. He had 27 points on 22 shots, with seven boards and eight assists. Rose is rated as a +5 defender in NBAPET and the more I watch that aspect of his game, the more I think it's somewhat for real. Rose and Kirk Hinrich combine to form one of the league's better defensive backcourts.
4. Luis Scola is apparently invisible.
Scola actually had an inefficient game on Monday, putting up 22 points but taking 21 shots to get there. I was surprised to see that when the final stats were distributed, because it seemed like Scola was breaking open on just about every other possession for an uncontested layup. His ability to move without the ball--a skill I don't often notice when watching live action--makes him a perfect fit for the motion offense now employed the bulk of the time by Adelman. He's a player on top of his game right now.
5. Is flopping really so bad?
About that "flop-a-pallooza." I really don't understand the uproar and I don't really like the use of the term "flop" as a derogatory way to describe a fundamental basketball skill--the ability to draw a charge. Yet, my sense is that I'm clearly in the minority on this topic. Sure, a cluster of these kinds of plays such as that occurred during the last half of the third quarter aren't the most aesthetic thing you'll ever see, but I don't recall another sequence like that all season. If officials are calling the play consistently and correctly, then the majority of these plays are going to be called blocks and the practice will be disincented. It's just part of the game and when it becomes a problem, it's almost always because of poor officiating.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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