The Houston Rockets look to extend their current three-game winning streak against the Chicago Bulls in the NBA's fourth Christmas Day offering.
Houston enters the contest playing as well as any team in the NBA. During the past week the Rockets have defeated the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Memphis Grizzlies, which tied their season's best winning streak. The games have not been close, with Houston averaging a 20-point margin of victory.
The Rockets' streak has coincided with the most productive stretch from their backcourt offseason additions. James Harden and Jeremy Lin have averaged a combined 49 points and 14.3 assists in their last three games.
But Chicago has also played well of late. Although they dropped their last game (a 92-75 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday), the Bulls have still won four of their past six. And they've also notched some impressive wins, knocking off the Knicks, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets in the process.
These two teams will close up their inter-conference season series with this game. Although Chicago won both the rebounding (48-45) and turnover (14-23) battles in their first meeting, Houston eked out a 93-89 home victory on November 21.
Time: Tuesday, December 25, 8 p.m. EST
Records: Houston Rockets (14-12), Chicago Bulls (15-11)
Betting Line: Bulls -4.5 (according to Vegas Insider Consensus)
Injuries (via CBSSports.com)
Patrick Patterson (foot), out
Richard Hamilton (foot), out
Derrick Rose (knee), out
Luol Deng (shoulder), probable
Chandler Parsons, SF, Rockets vs. Luol Deng, SF, Bulls
While Houston's backcourt has generated the most media coverage, Parsons has been this club's second-best player behind Harden. The second-year player out of Florida has increased his averages across the board, thanks in no small part to seeing nearly nine more minutes of action from his rookie season (37.2 minutes per game, up from 28.6).
With 14.7 points per game, Parsons is the second-leading scorer on the team. But he's been more than just a scoring option. He's added 6.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
His reliable perimeter shooting (36.2 three-point percentage) has opened up driving lanes for Houston's vaunted guards. And given that both Lin and Harden are willing passers, Parsons' shooting has been just as productive as it has been threatening.
Chicago fans have patiently waited for Deng's superstar potential to seep through the surface.
Consider that wait over.
With superstar point guard Derrick Rose still rehabbing a torn ACL, Deng has been giving coach Tom Thibodeau a steady stream of production. His 17.8 points per game leads all Bulls players by nearly four points, while his 40.7 minutes per game leads the entire NBA.
Deng's shooting numbers have dipped (43.4 field-goal and 30.6 three-point percentages) thanks to the increased defensive attention he's received, but he's still the most effective offensive threat on the roster.
He suffered a shoulder injury during Chicago's win over the Knicks on Friday night, and reportedly considered skipping the Hawks game on Saturday (according to Comcast Chicago's Aggrey Sam). Not only did he play the game, but in typical Deng fashion he played a team-high 33-plus minutes.
The last time these two teams squared off, both small forwards showed off their well-rounded games. Deng double-dipped with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but Parsons answered with his own 18 points and 13 rebounds.
Jeremy Lin, PG, Rockets
It's no surprise that the Rockets have rediscovered their winning ways during Lin's most efficient outings.
After reaching double figures in just 11 of his first 23 games of 2012-13, the Harvard grad has posted 15-plus during each of his past three games. His shooting numbers from the season are still unsightly (41.9 field-goal percentage), but he has shot better than 56 percent during this run.
And he's not just affecting the game with his scoring. He's averaged better than eight assists in his past three contests while limiting his turnovers (2.3).
This game should offer Lin some distinct advantages over his individual matchups. Against starter Kirk Hinrich, Lin has an exploitable edge in athleticism. When Nate Robinson sees the floor, Lin can dial into that Harvard-educated mind and utilize superior decision-making.
Joakim Noah, C, Bulls
Deng may be Chicago's best player this season, but it's hard to say anyone has been more valuable than Noah.
He has continued the strong defensive play that opened NBA doors for him in 2007. But he's no longer characterized as just a defensive player.
His 13.5 points per game is better than four points higher than his career average (9.2). He's topped the 20-point mark on five different occasions this season, including his brilliant 30-point, 23-rebound effort against Detroit on December 7 (see video above).
But perhaps Noah's biggest value has come from his ability to keep Chicago moving on the offensive end. With Rose sidelined, Hinrich still finding his way and Robinson focused more on his own scoring, Noah has served as an unlikely secondary distributor. His 4.5 assists per game has him on pace to shatter his previous career best (2.5 in 2011-12).
Noah trails only Deng in terms of minutes played (39.9).
Bulls 93, Rockets 81
Location, location, location.
As well as they have played of late, the Rockets are still just 3-7 outside of Houston. And two of those wins came in their first two games of the season.
The United Center has been one of the toughest arenas for visiting teams over the years, and this season has been no different. The Bulls are 8-6 at home on the year, and have won five of their past seven home games.
With the NBA's best offense (Houston, 105.4 points per game) facing the league's third-stingiest defense (Chicago, 91 points allowed per game), this will come down to which team can control the pace.
Call it a gut feeling, but I'll roll the dice on the Bulls giving Thibodeau a physically imposing Christmas gift with their defensive effort against the youthful Rockets.