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Preview: Bulls @ Rockets

The Bulls arrive in Houston as part of their annual Circus Road Trip, when their home floor is turned into a big tent and they have to take what is usually an obscenely long tour of the country by NBA standards. This year it’s a mercifully short 5 games, of which the Rockets are the fourth. They will be looking to bounce back after bad losses to the Clippers and Blazers, and come in with a couple of days rest. The Rockets, on the other hand, looked tired and beaten down in their loss to the Jazz on Monday night, and have only had one night off to recover. It remains to be seen whether James Harden can recover from the illness that beset him during that game.

Lineups:

There’s a glaring hole in the Chicago Bulls lineup where Derrick Rose should be. This team is basically treading water until he can get back, hoping to stay afloat in the comparatively uncompetitive Eastern Conference without him. And they still boast the core of the great team of the past few seasons – Hamilton, Deng, Boozer and Noah all return as starters from last year, and Gibson is still there coming off the bench and providing great defence. But the rest of the team has been assembled on the cheap from the free agent market. Aging veteran Kirk Hinrich starts at the point, with Nate Robinson coming off the bench to provide a bit his usual scoring. Marco Belinelli can come in for three point shooting, and Nazr Mohammed is still hanging around in the league providing backup big man minutes. The one young player to break his way into the rotation of what is otherwise a very old team is Jimmy Butler, who in his second year has looked good in limited minutes.

The big question for the Rockets is whether they’ll have James Harden back to something approximating full health. Without him this team is merely a plucky also ran – they really need the threat he provides to loosen up the opponent’s defence a bit. It will also be interesting to see if Terrence Jones continues to get playing time. Realistically he can expect his minutes to take a hit when Delfino comes back from his groin injury, but putting him on the floor does open up the possibility of moving Morris to the three. While not something the Rockets should be doing for long stretches (I think Morris works better as a stretch 4 when he can use his quickness advantage), it is something to consider throwing out as a change up from time to time.

The matchup between Joakim Noah and Omer Asik should be a fun one from the point of view of being former teammates. Asik has expressed his respect for Noah’s game (He made a point of putting him on his All-Star ballot). This is his chance to show his old team mates how much he is capable of now. We shall have to see whether he tries out some of the reverse layups he’s been using this year.

On Offence:

The Bulls have built their reputation and success around the defensive system of their coach Tom Thibodeau. Now widely imitated around the league, it stresses the importance of using the baseline and sidelines as extra defenders by forcing pick and roll coverage towards them at every opportunity. They have several excellent defenders on their team – Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are the stand-outs. What is missing this year is the man Houston fans have come to love, Omer Asik. That loss severely reduces the efficiency of their bench’s defence, which was an unbelievable strength last year and part of the big reason why they were able to continue to do so well with Rose out. In fact, the presence of several minus defenders on the Chicago bench (Robinson, Belinelli) has turned this into a weakness early in the season.

The Bulls look to try and run opposing teams off the three point line if they can. Good ball movement on the perimeter will be paramount for the Rockets if they are to get the open looks they need to fire up threes like they’ve been doing throughout the season so far.

Luol Deng is their premium wing-stopper. I’m expecting him to see a lot of minutes on Harden. Although that statement would be true without the Harden part – he lead the league in minutes played last year, and continues to do so this season at just over 40 minutes per game. Deng’s ability to cover anyone from the 2-4 is very useful, and his ability to play long minutes is an immense asset. He is the player I see Chandler Parsons emulating at the NBA level – underrated player with excellent defence and the ability to do all the little things on the court that go unnoticed, but very useful on the offensive end too.

Asik may have been playing excellently for Houston, but there’s a reason he was stuck behind Noah in Chicago. Noah’s length and mobility make him an excellent defender. He’s capable of stepping out and guarding bigs with an outside shot or banging in the post if need be (though based on the numbers it would appear that Asik is slightly better in that department). The hustle he brings is an additional X factor – the cliché tends to be that you bring your energy guys off the bench, but Chicago don’t need to do that because they’ve got him in their starting lineup.

There are a couple of holes in Chicago’s defence this year ripe for exploitation. Boozer is a poor defender who struggles against anyone with any kind of shooting range or speed. I think Morris would be a particularly difficult match up for him and I expect Sampson to continue to give him big minutes (especially if he can keep up his hot shooting). Hinrich is starting at point guard, and while he has a great deal of experience behind him, he is no longer quite the superlative perimeter defender he once was. He struggles to get around screens quickly, so Lin should have some opportunities to drive.

One thing Lin (and to a degree Harden) need to watch out for is the surprise trap. Every now and then Chicago will try to blitz the ball handler just as he crosses the half court line with one of their mobile bigs in an attempt to force a quick turnover. They were able to pull this off against Damien Lillard in Portland on Sunday, and given Lin and Harden’s turnover struggles so far in the season I would expect them to be giving this a try at some point during the game.

On Defence:

This is where Chicago is missing its superstar. Without Rose, the Bulls are left with very few players who can create their own shot (only Nate Robinson really falls into that category, and his brand of shot creation is too toxic to tolerate for more than short stretches). As a result, Chicago has looked to become more of a passing team – they are currently 4th in the league in Assist % (the percentage of baskets that were assisted). There are no stand-out passers on the team, but they work well together to manufacture good shots.

The Bull’s offence basically the polar opposite of the Rockets’. Houston leads the league in three point attempts per game, while the Bulls are last in that category. Conversely, the Bulls are the league leaders in shots between 16-23 feet, while Houston are last in that category. From an efficiency standpoint, I know which way I’d rather play. But the Bulls have three players that end up taking a lot of shots from this range – Boozer, Hamilton and Deng. It’s a weird one for Deng, who is more of a three point and slash kind of guy (as I was saying – that’s what Parsons is, right?), but the other two have made a living out of it in their careers up to this point.

It’s not that the Bulls don’t have three point threats. Belinelli is 40% from behind the arc this year and Robinson will take and make quite a few. It’s just that their offence is not designed to generate them all that often. This should be easier to defend – after all, it’s much easier to close out to a shooter at 20 feet than it is to someone behind the three point line.

You should be on the look out for outside shots by Joakim Noah. They have to be seen to be believed. It looks a bit like he’s attempting a chest-pass, and the ball flies out of his hands when you least expect it. Seems to go in a reasonable amount, but it’s very much in the ‘wince as he takes it’ category.

Finally, Chicago has been floundering when its bench unit comes in. Nate Robinson can be a good facilitator when he’s in the mood, but he often goes into his look-for-my-own-shot zone, with mixed results. Belinelli provides little beyond his outside shooting, and Mohammed is the definition of an offensive cipher. Taj Gibson has been trying a bit too hard to provide an offensive contribution and is currently shooting a measly 19% on shots more than 3 feet from the rim (of which he’s taking almost 4 per game). The Houston bench should be looking to contain them and dominate.

Summary:

It’s a matchup between two very different offensive styles. The Rockets’ is the more efficient of the two, and with the vaunted Bulls’ defence not quite being up to the level it was at last year, I would back the Rockets to stop the rot and pull out a win on their home floor.

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