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The Bulls Came to Play in Their Game of the Year Against Rockets

The Chicago Bulls’ offseason was criticized by many as the front office opted for a new coach while bringing back the exact same team that underperformed much of the season. Gar Forman and John Paxson’s thinking is that this team has the makings of a championship roster if everyone fires on all cylinders at the same time. If everyone could hit their collective strides when it matters most. That happened in the Bulls’ most thrilling game of the 2014-15 season against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 5. Chicago showed what it’s roster is capable of, if only for one night:

The Bulls won this whirlwind of a game, 114-105 (yes, a Tom Thibodeau-coached offense once scored that many points), and showed championship-level talent from all over the floor.

Pau Gasol ignited a fast-paced, up-and-down first quarter with 18 of the Bulls’ 34 points in the frame:

Gasol is tough to stop when his jumper is wet and his post game is fluid. Dwight Howard, who was actually healthy for this game, was too slow on his closeouts of Pau and was outwitted in the post. If Gasol can light up a three-time Defensive Player of the Year like this, the Bulls had to be confident he’d continue to dominate against high-level competition moving forward. Gasol wasn’t even the Bulls’ best player on this night. That honor belonged to Jimmy Butler.

Butler absolutely smothered James Harden all night in a virtuoso defensive performance. Harden scored 20 points, but many of those points came early when Kirk Hinrich started off defensively on the runner-up for MVP last season.

Harden scored three points in the second half on 0-for-9 shooting and attempted just five free throws in the game. Butler wasn’t falling for the pump fakes, step backs, or bowling ball Euro-steps that make Harden so effective. He stayed attached to Harden and gave him hardly any breathing room. He also did this:

All-Stars and MVP candidates usually don’t get shots blocked back into their faces like Harden on this play. Butler also scored 22 points in addition to his heady defensive effort. He came ready to play, and the rest of the team followed suit.

Derrick Rose shot just 6-for-17 from the field, but with Patrick Beverley guarding him, that’s understandable. He finished with 19 points and nine assists, with many of those dimes coming in the pick-and-pop game with Gasol. He looked confident and as healthy physically as he seemed in years.

Joakim Noah was hardly able to move much of last season, but even he finished with eight points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a season-high six blocked shots as he bothered Howard and the other Houston bigs in the paint.

Nikola Mirotic was sensational off the bench with 17 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a team-best +15. He also hit a dagger three-pointer in the corner that put the Bulls up 110-103 with under 40 seconds left in the game. The Bulls outscored the Rockets 31-16 in a fourth quarter that showcased the championship potential of Chicago.

The Bulls’ record moved to a pretty 25-10 after the win, which put them on pace for almost 60 wins. The victory was Chicago’s 10th in 11 games and 13th out of 15. Maybe the Bulls were indeed championship contenders. Or maybe not.

Chicago lost six of their next eight games and went a middling 25-22 after the win over Houston. Rose later underwent his third knee surgery and played only 51 games. Noah couldn’t play with that type of energy consistently all year. Gasol continued to put up counting stats and even started the All-Star game, but his on-court impact and defensive intensity was a bit lacking down the stretch. Butler kept the momentum going throughout the season in his Most Improved Player campaign, but he had little help from the rest of the team.

The Bulls were never able to put it all together when it mattered most; not like they were able to do in that Rockets game. Heck, they even lost in Houston a month later. The Bulls showed what the front office saw in them for one magical night. Fred Hoiberg will try to make that magic last even longer next season, but it’ll be a tall task. That’s what made that night so special: We may never see it again.

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