The Houston Rockets (17-9) defeated the Chicago Bulls (9-15) 109-94 on Wednesday night behind a dominant showing from Dwight Howard and five double-figure scorers.
After being outscored by 11 points in the first half, the Bulls mounted a charge in the third quarter. But it was the Rockets who ultimately came out on top during the game's decisive period, going on a 15-1 run to close out the frame.
"We have to make sure we play our style of basketball, especially against teams that want to grind you to a pulp," said Houston Head Coach Kevin McHale after the game, according to NBA.com's Jason Friedman.
Although Chicago's offense has been a liability all season long, the Bulls shot a steady 48.1 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three in the loss.
In a strange turn of events, it was the Bulls' defense that wound up costing them the game; they allowed the Rockets to shoot 53.7 percent from the field.
The Bulls offense still stinks but the defense wasn't good in this one either. Bulls outscored 66-40 in the paint.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) December 19, 2013
Chicago also missed 10 of its 23 free-throw attempts while Houston converted 81.3 percent of its free-throw attempts.
James Harden, Houston Rockets, Shooting Guard
Despite sustaining a high ankle sprain against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, James Harden was back in action for the Rockets on Wednesday.
And apparently the ankle is doing just fine, because Harden burst out of the gates by scoring seven points on 3-of-3 shooting in the game's first four minutes.
As he typically does, Harden was able to churn out points efficiently thanks to a refined offensive approach. Harden dropped in 19 points on 54 percent shooting and got to the line four times, sinking all of his attempts from the stripe.
His 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting led all scorers during a first half in which the Rockets shot 54.5 percent from the field.
Harden did have a bit of a problem taking care of the ball, though, as he coughed up the rock seven times while dishing out six assists.
Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets, Center
Entering Wednesday night, the Rockets ranked third in the NBA in points in the paint per game (48.7), a byproduct of the Rockets' efficient tendencies and Dwight Howard's presence down on the blocks.
Against a Bulls team that entered the night ranked No. 4 overall in defensive efficiency (per Basketball-Reference), the Rockets dropped 66 points in the painted area, with Howard chipping in 23 points total on 11-of-14 shooting.
However, as has often been the case, it was Howard's defensive abilities that proved to be so valuable for the Rockets' winning effort.
Just consider this factoid from the second quarter:
Howard's disruptive reach and elite athleticism were particularly effective on a night when the Bulls leaned upon Carlos Boozer to produce on the offensive end.
Dwight checking back in. Bulls have scored on every possession but 1 since he sat. (Missed a layup on that 1. Smith sits w 3 fouls, 0 rebs.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) December 19, 2013
He added nine rebounds and a block to his final line.
Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets, Small Forward
With the Rockets looking to bomb away and push the pace against a lethargic Chicago team, Chandler Parsons appeared to be locked in early, recording five points and five rebounds in the first quarter.
Although the threes weren't falling for the Rockets in bunches during the first half, Parsons was able to provide a steady hand from beyond the arc, draining two of Houston's five threes over the game's first 24 minutes.
In a solid showing, Parsons finished with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting (3-of-4 from three), pulled down nine rebounds and doled out three assists.
Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets, Point Guard
Credit Patrick Beverley: He saw that he had favorable matchups against D.J. Augustin and Marquis Teague and took advantage.
His dedication to getting to the rim was never more evident than in the second quarter. He scored 11 points in the period thanks mostly to an array of blow-bys that left Teague looking positively helpless.
Beverley was one of four Rockets players (along with Harden, Howard and Parsons) who scored in double figures in the first half. He went on to finish with 15 points on just nine shots.
Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets, Power Forward
When you're in a funk, you're in a funk.
Terrence Jones didn't do much to alleviate the scoring pains that ailed him over the last two games, when he scored a combined nine points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Jones was the final Rockets starter to enter the scoring column, and he did so off of a pretty lob from Parsons. But he finished the night with a paltry five points on 2-of-8 shooting, five rebounds and a career-high six assists.
Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets, Sixth Man
With Jeremy Lin absent once again due to a back injury, Aaron Brooks assumed the role of sixth man for the Rockets.
Brooks entered the night averaging 11.4 points and 3.5 assists over his last 10 games, but he was unable to produce comparable scoring figures. He totaled just two points in 18 minutes. He did, however, dish out four assists.
Beverley was in control throughout, which made Brooks expendable on a night when the Rockets didn't have a problem matching up against an underwhelming platoon of Bulls point guards
Bench, Houston Rockets
Here's how you know it wasn't a breakout night for McHale's second unit: Houston's starters scored 53 of the team's 57 first-half points, with only Brooks and Francisco Garcia managing to find their way into the scoring column in limited first-half minutes.
Ultimately, Omri Casspi was the high man off the bench with 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting. But the Rockets' reserves really didn't make an impact until the starters had put the game out of reach.
Francisco Garcia added nine points on 4-of-6 shooting in 19 minutes.
Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls, Small Forward
You can always count on Luol Deng to provide a balanced performance, and he did so once again while playing a team-high 35 minutes.
His offensive contributions were needed in order for the Bulls to keep pace with the league's second-highest scoring offense, and he came through, scoring 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting.
Deng put up yet another complete all-around effort with five rebounds, four assists and a steal. He also helped propel the Bulls to a 30-point second quarter, the most the Bulls had scored in a single period since they hung 35 on the New Orleans Pelicans in the second quarter back on Dec. 2.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls, Center
On a night when Dwight Howard was in peak form, Joakim Noah was thoroughly outplayed by his Western Conference counterpart.
While Noah did pull down a game-high 10 rebounds, including three on the offensive glass, Howard was simply too much for the Bulls' center, shooting a tidy 79 percent from the field and making the paint his own personal stomping ground.
Noah's energy level was high, but it was one of those nights when Howard proved to be just too overwhelming.
Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls, Power Forward
Carlos Boozer led the Bulls in double-doubles with eight entering Wednesday night's contest, but he fell short of capturing a ninth as he racked up 17 points and six rebounds in the loss.
Boozer proved to be the Bulls' most consistent offensive weapon on a night when the Bulls were trying to match the Rockets' uptempo attack. He converted seven of his 15 field-goal attempts.
Boozer's grade would have crept into the A-minus range had he been able to take care of the ball. He committed a team-high five turnovers in the loss.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, Shooting Guard
There wasn't anything flashy to Jimmy Butler's game on Wednesday, which was unfortunate, but he did lead the Bulls with 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting in front of his hometown crowd.
Butler was one of four Bulls players who finished in double-figures. But he managed just one rebound and no assists in the loss, a major reason his grade hovers slightly above average.
D.J. Augustin, Chicago Bulls, Point Guard
Kirk Hinrich sat for the third game in a row due to a stiff back, which left Tom Thibodeau with a couple of unsatisfactory options at point guard.
And while Augustin's hardly an offensive juggernaut, he looked assertive and confident, scoring eight points, including two triples.
The biggest and most pleasing development from Augustin, though, was his game-high nine assists for a Chicago offense that's sorely in need of capable distributors.
Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls, Sixth Man
Thibodeau's plan to cross-match Boozer on Howard early was rather ineffective (Howard poured in six points in six minutes), which led him to pull his starting power forward and run with Taj Gibson alongside Noah in order to give the feisty center a crack at guarding Superman.
Thibodeau going to Taj Gibson earlier than usual. Must be tired of the Dwight Howard alley-oop fest.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 19, 2013
With Gibson typically a more physical and aggressive presence on the defensive end than Boozer, it was a logical move by the Bulls' chief decision-maker, although it didn't exactly deter Howard from diving to the rim time and again.
Gibson was able to acquit himself nicely with 14 points and four rebounds off the bench, but his inability to corral the Rockets' interior scorers wasn't exactly commendable.
Bench, Chicago Bulls
Like the Rockets' bench, Chicago's second unit wasn't particularly useful on Wednesday night.
Mike Dunleavy scored nine points on 4-of-8 shooting while Marquis Teague was the only other Chicago reserve to score, dropping in two points during garbage time.
The Bulls will face the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder on the second night of a back-to-back on Thursday while the Rockets are off until Friday, when they'll clash with the Indiana Pacers.