Rockets vs. Bulls preview: James Harden faces Chicago's stifling defense

USA TODAY Sports

Can James Harden and the Rockets' high-powered offense overcome the Bulls' stingy defense?

As recently as a few months ago, the fourth game of the 2012 NBA Christmas slate looked like a boring battle between a rudderless Houston Rockets team and a Chicago Bulls club playing without its star. Then, the Rockets pulled off the trade for James Harden, and the Bulls kept plugging away thanks to the exploits of Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Now, this matchup looks pretty intriguing.

The two teams present a major contrast in styles. The Bulls have been keeping afloat by grinding out games on the defensive end, the same playbook they've used to play so well over the past couple years. The only difference: the way Tom Thibodeau is riding his starters. Luol Deng is averaging nearly 41 minutes a contest, while Noah clocks in at just under 40. The Bulls got a huge win over the Knicks on Friday, but completely ran out of gas on Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks. With Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich battling nagging injuries, the Bulls' lack of depth is being exposed. Nevertheless, you can always count on Chicago playing good defense and being in the game late.

The Rockets, meanwhile, have become the league's ultimate drive-and-kick club. Harden has been outstanding all year, and the Rockets have surrounded him with shooters at all positions. On some nights, they can look brilliant. Just ask the Knicks and Grizzlies. On other nights, though, their lack of defense and the sometimes-awkward chemistry between Harden and Jeremy Lin makes them seem like less than the sum of their parts. You often don't know which team you're going to get, which makes them an entertaining club to follow from a distance.

Stability against volatility. Offense against defense. Drive-and-kick vs. post-oriented. Announcer-speak says this game should be an interesting test of wills. No matter what, it'll be more entertaining that it looked like it'd be in October.

Game time: 8 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

STAR WATCH: This may be one of Harden's most difficult matchups. The Bulls will be physical with him in half-court situations, so he needs to get points in the open floor to get his numbers.

X-FACTOR: Can the Rockets tire out Joakim Noah? Chasing Omer Asik and Greg Smith on pick and rolls is a difficult task when done over the entire game. If the Rockets want to win in the fourth quarter, they might need to make Noah defend a lot of pick and rolls in the first quarter to wear him down.

KEY TREND TO WATCH: This is obviously a battle between two teams that play very different styles. The last time the Rockets played a team like Chicago, they scored 124 points against the Grizzlies. Memphis had issues getting their shots in good spots on the floor, which affected their transition defense. The Bulls need to be much crisper in running their offense in order to put their guards in the right position to drop back.

PREDICTION: Bulls 97, Rockets 88.


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