Fresh off their most impressive performance of the season, the Bulls welcome James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets to the United Center, Saturday night. The contest tips off on NBC Sports Chicago at 7 p.m. CT — until then, here’s what to watch for:
1. Beware of the breakout
Stopping Harden and Westbrook completely is, on its face, an impossible ask. But if the Bulls want any shot at hanging with Houston, they’ll have to find a way to at least slow them down.
Jim Boylen’s uber-aggressive, ball-handler-blitzing defense revealed some glaring rotational deficiencies at the start of the season, but in Wednesday’s win they showed signs of progression. Tomas Satoransky and Kris Dunn combined to smother Trae Young (2-of-6 shooting, three turnovers with Satoransky or Dunn as the primary defender), and they will likely take lead responsibilities defending Harden.
The Rockets are a different beast than the Hawks, though, so beware of the breakout: By each of their lofty standards, Harden and Westbrook are off to sluggish starts to the season, efficiency-wise. Harden is shooting his lowest percentage from three (27%) on his most attempts per game (13.9) in his career so far, and as a backcourt, he and Westbrook have two of the seven highest turnover per game totals in the league.
Maybe a steal-happy Bulls squad gives them fits. Or maybe facing a middling defense short its best wing defender in Otto Porter Jr. is exactly what the Rockets’ dynamic duo need to get back on track.
2. Wing depth and rotation concerns
Speaking of Porter, check out these per-game splits. Small sample-size alert, but they tell a story:
First five games: 8.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals; 31.8%, 57.9% from three
Last four games: 14.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals; 52.5% FG, 57.9% from three
The Bulls record in his first five was 1-4. The last four? 2-2, and that includes a loss to the Lakers that the Bulls dominated for three-plus quarters.
Now, they’ll have to make do without Porter for an undisclosed period of time, and he leaves a massive hole in their rotation behind Chandler Hutchison. Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford are back from Hoffman Estates, but Boylen hasn't demonstrated an affinity for either of them — the two have combined for 11 minutes of playing time so far this season.
Valentine, specifically, is coming off a 25 point, 18 rebound, 8 assist effort for Windy City last night. Without much in the way of wing depth against an opponent that could bait the Bulls into foul trouble, it's worth monitoring if he can jump Shaq Harrison or Ryan Arcidiacono in the rotation.
Whatever shape it may take, buckle up for some Boylen experimenting tonight.
3. A plan of attack
To flip a timeless adage on its head, sometimes — when faced with as prolific an offensive attack as Houston’s — the best defense is great offense. The Rockets have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league so far this season, and it all starts in their backcourt. They haven’t held an opponent under 100 points in any of their first eight games and have ceded 25+ point outings to Bradley Beal, Alec Burks and Caris Levert in the last week-and-a-half.
The Bulls should have enough firepower in at the guard spot to take advantage. Satoransky is coming off perhaps the best performance of his career, Zach LaVine is circling a breakout and Coby White — one-dimensional as he may be — has shown an ability to put balls in the basket. Wear Harden, Westbrook, Gordon and co. down on that end of the floor, and it might reap benefits that creep into other areas of the game.
4. Threes on threes on threes
Ultimately, these are both teams that want to push the pace and shoot a ton of threes — those themes will undoubtedly pervade this game from start to finish.
Houston is second in the league in three-pointers attempted (47.8) and made (15.8) per game this season; the Bulls are 10th (35.0) and 15th (11.7), respectively. The Rockets rank dead last in midrange attempts per game (4.8), the Bulls 28th (6.8). The list goes on, but you get the picture.
The key: Neither of these teams is actually shooting the three-ball all that well, at least not yet. Believe it or not, the Bulls are currently outpacing the Rockets in three-point percentage by decimal points, but Houston is playing at a much faster tempo (107.6 possessions per game compared to the Bulls’ 102.8). Expect a lot of possessions, a lot of early-shot-clock jumpers, and a lot of points tonight.