Yes. I went there.
This game could indeed be a trap.
On paper, the Bulls appear the better team. They’ve won three in a row and lead the Central Division at 5-3. After an up-and-down start, Chicago has steadily improved and currently rank 5th in PPG (105.0), 8th in Pace (96.1), 7th in Defensive Rating (103.2), 12th in Offensive Rating (107.9) and 13th in Opponents PPG (100.4).
The Rockets are 3-6 and 5th in the Southwest Division. They rank 23rd in Defensive Rating (108.2) and 29th in Opponents PPG (107.7).
The flip side? They run the court and score points. Houston is 3rd in Pace (98.4), 4th in PPG (107.7), and 10th in Offensive Rating (108.2). After opening the season 0-6, they’ve scored 100 or more points in four of their last five games — including 120 or more twice — and won three of the five.
Of course, those wins came against the Timberwolves (3-9), Pacers (4-4) and Knicks (3-7). And the Rockets will be without the services of Yao Ming (sprained left ankle), Aaron Brooks (ditto) and Chase Buddinger (ditto again). Brooks and Ming are the team’s third an fourth leading scorers, respectively, and Brooks leads the team in assists.
In theory, those absences should more than balance out the loss of Kyle Korver, who could miss the game with a sore right knee. After all, they’ve got the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week in Derrick Rose.
Said Rose: “[Losing Korver] would hurt a lot, He’s a good player. He brings a lot of energy and a lot of scoring when he comes in the game. We need him, but we can’t use that as an excuse. We still have to go out there and play the game.”
Still, history seems to be against the Bulls. They haven’t won a road game yet this season — dropping games in Oklahoma City and Boston — and they are 10-61 on the circus trip since Michael Jordan retired in 1998. Last year, they went 1-5 on the trip.
And the Rockets are used to playing without key players.
The Bulls have to be careful. That starts with valuing the basketball…something Chicago hasn’t excelled at this season. The Bulls rank 22nd in Turnover Percentage and have had a tendency to give the ball away too often this season. With a running team like Houston, that could be deadly. Fortunately, the Rockets rank 30th in Opponents Turnover Percentage, so they don’t force a lot of miscues.
The Bulls must also avoid committing fouls, which was a problem in the early going. It could be a problem tonight, as the Rockets rank 4th in Free Thows Per Field Goal Attempt. Kevin Martin — Houston’s leading scorer at 24.1 PPG — averages 9.1 free throw attempts.
Look, this game is extremely important. At best, it’s probably the second most winnable game not only of the cirus trip but of the next nine games. In case you didn’t know it, the trip — during which the Bulls face the Rockets, Spurs (8-1 and second night of back-to-backs), Mavericks (7-2), Lakers (8-2), Suns (6-4 and second night of back-to-backs), Nuggets (5-5) and Kings (3-6 second night of back-to-backs) — is followed by a home game against the Magic (7-3) and another roadie in Boston (8-2).
That’s an absolutely brutal nine-game stretch. I’m not trying to be a doubter. But — especially if Korver misses extended time with his knee injury – I could see the Bulls going 3-6 or even 2-7 during this stretch. Going from 5-3 to (in theory) 7-10 would be a real blow.
Which, again, emphasizes the importance of tonight’s game. The Bulls always need to beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. But doing so this time is absolutely critical.