The stage was set, with the return of half of their starting backcourt, but a second-half collapse led to the Bulls dropping the two games in a row for the first time all season, as they fell to the Rockets, 99-93, Monday night at the United Center.
An atypical defensive showing and the inability to take care of the basketball led to the rare occurrence of the team that entered the evening with the leagues best record losing at home, a day after a disappointing blowout defeat at the hands of the Western Conference-best Thunder in Oklahoma City.
In his return to the lineup after missing 14 games due to a right-shoulder injury, Rip Hamilton (six points on 2-for-7 shooting, three assists in 19 minutes) made an immediate impact, providing the Bulls (42-13) with an aggressive perimeter scoring threat, as well as a capable playmaker.
A beneficiary of the veteran shooting guards underrated playmaking was Joakim Noah (15 points, nine rebounds), who got off to a solid start in general, as evidenced by his activity on the boards, strong finishes at the rim and running the floor in transition.
Houston (29-25), however, was clicking on the offensive end, as the veteran inside duo of Luis Scola (18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) and Marcus Camby (12 points, 11 rebounds) went to work early, as the pair was a force on the glass, rained in jumpers and scored on the interior.
With point guard Goran Dragic (21 points, five assists) also contributing on offense, the Rockets took advantage of the Bulls again playing below their usual standards on defense, putting the hosts behind, 26-22, after a period of play, despite All-Star Luol Deng (24 points, seven rebounds) chipping in with a quietly solid opening quarter.
The always-energetic Taj Gibson came off the bench to spark the Bulls early in the second frame, helping the home team quickly overtake the visitors and seize the lead. The entire Bench Mob gave the Bulls a boostRonnie Brewer, back to being a backup with Hamilton starting, stood out as a passerextending the lead with an all-out defensive effort and sprinkling of transition offense against the Rockets reserves.
Noah continued to thrive on both ends of the floor, finishing with authorityof his first six baskets, five were dunksand providing a defensive presence, both of which aided the Bulls in acquiring a comfortable double-digit advantage.
However, the visitors stormed back toward the end of the first half, as Dragic scored six points in less than 20 secondstwo fast-break layups off Bulls turnovers, then another off an inbounds passto narrow the gap, leaving the hosts with a 51-40 lead at the intermission.
After the break, Deng became the Bulls offensive focal point and delivered as a scorer, but received little help from his teammates throughout the period. For Houston, the opposite was true, as a total team effortgreatly aided by the Bulls ball-security issues, leading to transition baskets on the other end of the courtgot the guests back into the game.
Camby and Scola were instrumental in the comeback, but Dragics scoring and playmaking prowess was key for the Rockets, who also got solid contributions from supporting-cast members, such as starting wings Courtney Lee (13 points) and rookie Chandler Parsons, as well as reserves Chase Budinger (13 points) and recently-signed veteran Earl Boykins.
With the Bulls struggling on both ends of the floor, the visitors surged to take a 71-70 into the fourth quarter.
The Rockets held on to the games momentum early in the final stanza, as Budingers long-range accuracy offset Carlos Boozers (16 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) mid-range shooting, giving the visitors a double-digit cushion to work with.
Familiar fourth-quarter savior John Lucas III and designated sharpshooter Kyle Korver attempted to spark a run, but the balanced visitors continued to get help from a variety of sources, as Boykins and second-year power forward Patrick Patterson came through with timely scoring to keep Houston in firm control midway through the period.
Turnovers and the inability to capitalize on missed Rockets opportunities still plagued the Bulls as the game entered its stretch run, but even after a Deng jumper cut it to a four-point contest, Lee responded to make it 94-88 with 51 seconds remaining.
A Korver turnover and subsequent foul on the next possession virtually sealed the deal, giving the Bulls back-to-back losses for the first time since falling to Golden State and Portland last February.