Jimmy Butler, James Harden

Their record might not show it, but the Chicago Bulls are the best team in the East on most nights and possibly in the NBA, as their 114-105 win over the Houston Rockets proved, getting a big night from Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and especially Jimmy Butler, who continues his ascension into NBA superstardom, even if it comes at the expense of James Harden.

Butler scores 22 points, highlights by a huge dunk on the head of Dwight Howard and also blocking James Harden as the latter pulled up for a 3-pointer, getting a huge reaction from the crowd. Butler played a lot of small forward in this game as Mike Dunleavy was injured and Kirk Hinrich filled in for him. This meant another 40+ minute game for Butler, something he’s quite accustomed to, although it didn’t seem to bother him at all.

Pau Gasol led the Bulls with 27 points on 10-of-16 from the field, grabbing 14 rebounds as well. Joakim Noah gave him a huge amount of help in the paint, scoring 8 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking six shots as the need for him to score and actually run the offense for the Bulls has certainly dropped since the arrival of Noah and also Nikola Mirotic, surprisingly with a real case to contend for the rookie of the year award.

Derrick Rose continues to be way off on his shooting, hitting just 6-of-17 from the field. He did end up scoring 19 points and added 9 assists. It’s actually a bit rare to see Rose putting up these kind of passing numbers this season. He might be the point guard of the team, but there are more playmakers than just him. The Bulls actually don’t need him to try and be too much of anything because of their variety on offense compared to the past, but Rose still is struggling to shake off bad performances and shaky shooting from long range.

The game got away from the Rockets in the fourth quarter, outscored by 15 points. James Harden didn’t make a single field goal in the final 12 minutes, settling for just two points from the line. The Bulls are a good defensive team, not elite as in the last two or three seasons. But they can put the crunch on teams when necessary, and with Noah under the basket, coming in for Gibson in the fourth quarter, manage to completely shut down the Rockets.

Houston were stuck on 100 points and a five point lead for nearly five minutes, while the Bulls grabbed the lead, outscoring 19-5 in the final six minutes of the game. Gasol had an easy time in the paint, Derrick Rose got to the line and Nikola Mirotic pulled off another fantastic performance from the bench, scoring 17 points to go with 8 rebounds, finishing in double figures for a second consecutive game, making it a nice start to 2015 for him.

The Rockets made subtle allegations about the referees helping the home team, with the Rockets going to the line just five times in the entire game. That didn’t lose them the game. Their offense stopped playing in the home stretch, something Josh Smith spoke about when the game was over. Smith led the Rockets with 21 points in 26 minutes, but the Rockets were a -19 during his minutes on the floor because of that finish.

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