After a string of some rather unenjoyable Bulls games, we were due for a fun one. And man did we get one on Monday night at the United Center, with the Bulls and Rockets throwing blows back and forth for much of the night. But in the end, it was Chicago pulling out a 114-105 victory to move to 25-10 on the season. The victory was the Bulls' 10th in 11 games, and their sixth straight win against the Western Conference.
Pau Gasol led the Bulls with 27 points and 14 rebounds, but the real story of the night was Jimmy Butler.
Butler didn't shoot particularly well, going just 7-of-17 from the field. However, he scored 22 points, hit multiple clutch shots and absolutely locked down the NBA's leading scorer in James Harden in the second half. Harden had 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting in the first half, but he went 0-of-9 in the second half with Butler draped all over him the entire time and finished with 20 points.
Perhaps most importantly, Harden took just three free throw attempts, and one of those was a technical. The Rockets took just FIVE free throws all game, and this was despite the fact that they did a ton of damage in the paint. Houston scored 62 points in the paint to just 44 for Chicago, but the Bulls evened that out by going 27-of-30 from the line.
Chicago actually trailed for much of the second half and found themselves down 100-95 midway through the fourth quarter. The Rockets missed some chances to put the game away, and then the Bulls finally pounced. Closing with a lineup of Butler, Gasol, Derrick Rose, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah, Chicago went on a 19-5 run to finish off the win.
The run started with an and-1 by Gasol that capped off a crazy sequence of missed layups and offensive rebounds. Butler then tied the game with a jumper, and after Josh Smith inexplicably hit a three-pointer moments later, Butler answered with a three of his own. The Bulls wouldn't trail again, and Mirotic put the Rockets away with a dagger corner three.
Mirotic had 17 points and eight rebounds off the bench, shooting 7-of-12 from the floor. The reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month only made the one three on the night, but he got a couple great looks that will likely go down more often than not. He also did this:
Rose shot poorly again, going just 6-of-17 from the field. But he still finished with 19 points and nine assists, and it was his heady pass to Gasol for that big and-1 that sparked the Bulls' big run. Rose attacked and moved the ball well for much of the night, and it led to a ton of good looks.
This game was a blast right from the start, as the first half was a track meet with both teams utterly incapable of stopping the other. The Rockets jumped out to a nine-point lead on the backs of Harden and Patrick Beverley. Tom Thibodeau initially had Kirk Hinrich guarding Harden, and the NBA's leading scorer had little trouble going to work on the smaller Hinrich. Meanwhile, Beverley made hay attacking the offensive glass, as Rose was caught napping several times.
But the Bulls got right back into it thanks to some of their own stellar work on the offensive boards and a lot of Gasol. The big man had 18 points and six rebounds in the first quarter alone, going straight at Dwight Howard in the post and also knocking down jumpers that Howard was more than happy to give up.
Chicago made a push with the three-big lineup featuring Gasol, Mirotic and Taj Gibson, and they grabbed a five-point lead early in the second quarter. But the rest of the quarter just went back and forth. Smith actually did something useful with three straight buckets. Rose woke up from a slow start with three driving baskets in a row. Mirotic had eight second-quarter points.
When the dust settled, the game was tied at 62-62 at the break. The Bulls shot a scorching 57.8 percent from the field in the first half, but they didn't make a single three-pointer, while the Rockets made 4-of-9 and shot 55.8 percent overall. Both teams did damage on the offensive boards, but the Bulls had a four-point advantage in second chance points.
On several occasions in the second half, it looked like Houston was going to pull away. Smith had 13 second-half points and 21 for the game, and the Rockets opened up eight-point leads on several occasions. But the Bulls were having none of it, and the way they closed the game has been typical of many of their wins this season.
While the story of the night was Butler, the thing I'm most excited about from this one was the closing lineup. Seeing Thibodeau trust Mirotic and the three-big lineup down the stretch against a really good opponent was awesome, and they rewarded that trust. The way it's going, the lineup we saw close tonight is the lineup I want closing in the playoffs, with Taj Gibson mixed in there as well.
Overall, this was just a whole hell of a lot of fun. Let's enjoy this win.