The Rockets have now won 26 of their past 27 games, and fully deserve the number one seed in the west they will end up with. With a 60-14 record, they have blown out their lead over the second placed Warriors to 5.5 games, and won’t be giving it up.
Their latest victory was a straightforward 118-99 result over the Hawks. Chris Paul sat out that game, but in a demonstration of their backcourt depth, Eric Gordon stepped into the starting lineup and added 22 points off just 13 shots.
Chicago are in a starkly different scenario, sitting in 12th place in the east with a 24-49 record, and having suffered five consecutive defeats. The latest of these was a 95-117 defeat at the hands of the Pistons.
Three keys to the game
Paul’s injury - Paul has now sat out the past three games with a hamstring complaint, and though it doesn’t appear to have slowed the Rockets down, his return will be a welcome one for the league leaders. Harden may be the best player on the team, but Paul’s presence allows Houston to have an All-Star caliber point guard on the court at all time.
The Bulls’ lack of scoring power - Chicago haven’t been a good offensive team all year, but things are looking even more dire at the moment. Of their four leading scorers this year, Nikola Mirotic has moved to New Orleans, and all three of Zach LaVine, Laura Markkanen and Kris Dunn have sat recent games with injuries, and will likely miss this one too. After that their top scorer is Bobby Portis, who comes off the bench for 13.3 points per game.
Houston’s form - So extended is their winning form, it’s questionable as to whether we can still label it form. Perhaps it is just who they are, but either way 26-1 in their past 27 games is an extraordinary feat, and they don’t look like slowing down any time soon. Their past two games have seen a 19 point victory and a 23 point victory, so the Bulls better be prepared for an onslaught.
Matchup to watch
Jerian Grant vs James Harden - Grant probably won’t start the game, but he will likely spend more time as the Bulls’ primary facilitator than any of their starting guards. The 25-year-old is averaging just 8.3 points and 4.8 assists in 22.6 minutes per game this season, but put in a nice performance with ten points and ten assists against Detroit over the weekend. He will probably spend a fair bit of time guarding Harden, and the MVP favorite will lick his lips at taking on the inexperienced Bull. Harden’s 30.7 points per game this season are a career and league high, accompanied by 8.7 assists and 1.8 steals. Good luck, Jerian.
Houston Rockets predicted starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - PJ Tucker | C - Clint Capela
Chicago Bulls predicted starting lineup
PG - Cameron Payne | SG - Justin Holiday | SF - Denzel Valentine | PF - Noah Vonleh | C - Robin Lopez
Harden hasn’t typically been at his best against Chicago. In 15 career games against them he averages just 20.0 points, three points less than his career average. His 4.8 assists are also well below his career average, and he shoots just 40.8% from the field.
Paul’s long and accomplished career has seen him face the Bulls 21 times, and he has been problematic for Chicago in these matchups. He averages 19.3 points on 50.8% shooting against them, and his 9.4 assists are accompanied by just 2.4 turnovers.
The line is set at an enormous 14.5 points, which is about as high as oddsmakers normally go. Despite the huge number, Houston should cover it, as they have a tendency to truly demolish teams. Expect Chicago to be next, so back the Rockets to cover.
This will be a walk in the park for Houston against the young Bulls. Wins don’t benefit Chicago hugely anyway, but even at full strength and full motivation they would be no chance against the dominant Rockets.
Paul and Harden will toy with the Bulls’ listless guard brigade, and will lead the Rockets to a considerable lead by halftime. The second half will see them take the foot off the accelerator, but they are so good they will still run out 118-98 winners.
The game will be broadcast locally on ATTSN-SW and WGN-TV. Tip-off is at 8pm ET.