Houston Chronicle

Season sweep of Bulls a possibilit­y

- By Jonathan Feigen STAFF WRITER jonathan.feigen@houstonchr­onicle.com twitter.com/jonathan_feigen

The Bulls arrive in Toyota Center as one of two teams that have not beaten the Rockets this season, joining only the Detroit Pistons — company the Bulls would rather not keep.

That also makes the game one of the last two in which the Rockets can complete a sweep of a season series, which would be the Rockets’ fifth sweep of the Bulls in seven seasons.

The 133 points the Rockets scored in Chicago are their third most of the season, trailing only the 142 they scored against the Spurs this week and 134 in Orlando in November.

The Bulls, however, are coming off one of their best wins of the season, blowing out the Nuggets in Denver on Wednesday. They are tied for fifth in the NBA in defensive rating, and have the third-best mark since Jan. 1.

Here are five things to watch in the matchup of the Rockets and Bulls:

Same old, same old

The Rockets’ loss in Indiana was in many ways typical Rockets.

They committed far too many turnovers (17), giving up 20 points off turnovers. But they dominated on the glass, outscoring the Pacers 23-5 in second-chance points. They got little from the 3-point line, taking fewer 3s (17) than the Pacers made (18) and hitting only six. But the Rockets scored 82 points in the paint, eight more than their previous most this season set four days earlier and 23 more than any team averages.

By now, most strengths and weaknesses can be entrenched. But in the win in Chicago, the Rockets made 3s (going 17-of-44 from the 3-point line) and cut down on their turnovers (committing just 12.)

That could be a blueprint for what is necessary to win not just Saturday, but in the final weeks of the season.

A potential return

Kevin Porter Jr. returned from his toe injury to play in four games before he was forced to miss Thursday’s game with a bruised thigh. The Rockets are hopeful that he will return Saturday, which would be welltimed.

Porter had his top scoring game of the season against the Bulls, scoring 36 points in Chicago. In the past two seasons, he has averaged 25 points on 54.3 percent shooting and nine assists against the Bulls.

Porter made 14 of 32 shots, including 6 of 14 3s, in his first three games back but struggled in the game he was hurt, making just 2 of 11 shots against the Nets. He has averaged 6.8 assists to 2.3 turnovers in the games since coming back.

He will likely match up with a familiar face. Patrick Beverley has started seven games with the Bulls since he signed as a free agent. His shot has been off, making only 23.5 percent of his 3s and averaging 4.4 points (he has made 26.5 percent of his 3s against the Rockets, his first NBA team). But he was acquired to defend scoring guards such as Porter.

Two of a kind?

When Rockets guard Jalen Green was a draft prospect, the Bulls’ Zach LaVine was among the draft comps often made about him.

That would work out well for the Rockets, with Green trending in that direction and LaVine a two-time All-Star having another strong season.

LaVine has averaged 24.7 points on 48 percent shooting, along with four assists and 4.7 rebounds in his ninth season. In his past five games, LaVine has averaged 31.2 points on 56.4 percent shooting.

Green, who has averaged 26.7 points in his past three games, is averaging 21.8 points along with 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists, making 41.3 percent of his shots. That’s well off LaVine’s pace, but considerab­ly better than his first two seasons out of UCLA.

Green had one of his best shooting games of the season in the first meeting, making 6 of 10 3s to match his seasonhigh, scoring 24 points. LaVine had 22.

Keep it going

Rockets rookie Jabari Smith Jr. is coming off the best game of his career, getting a careerhigh 30 points with 12 rebounds, three assists, three 3s and two steals in Indiana to join LeBron James as the only players 19 or younger with those numbers.

He had been trending in that direction. After making 1 of 16 3-pointers in a four-game stretch, he has made 8-of-18 in his past four games. He has made at least three 3-pointers in consecutiv­e games for just the second time this season.

Smith has scored at least 20 points in eight games this season but never in consecutiv­e games.

The Bulls often start a small frontcourt with DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso playing together, potentiall­y creating a challengin­g matchup for Smith but also giving him chances to shoot in the midrange over smaller defenders.

Clutch City?

The Rockets have not won a close game since consecutiv­e wins to end January and begin February. Their chance at a narrow win in Thursday’s overtime loss was typical.

The Rockets were outstandin­g defensivel­y down the stretch of the fourth quarter but fell apart on the offensive end prior to Jabari Smith Jr.’s 3-pointer to force overtime.

Ranking 29th defensivel­y this season, the Rockets are the fourthbest defensivel­y in clutch situations, though that did not last into Thursday’s overtime. They are last in the NBA offensivel­y in games with a five-point margin in the final five minutes.

The Rockets are just 10-21 in games with clutch situations, but the Bulls have similarly struggled, going 11-22 in those games.

 ?? Elizabeth Conley/Staff photograph­er ?? The Rockets may have starting guard Kevin Porter Jr. back in the lineup Saturday after he missed Thursday’s overtime loss to the Pacers with a bruised thigh.
Elizabeth Conley/Staff photograph­er The Rockets may have starting guard Kevin Porter Jr. back in the lineup Saturday after he missed Thursday’s overtime loss to the Pacers with a bruised thigh.

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