The Chicago Bulls aren’t as dominant defensively as they have been in recent seasons, though they’re locking up opponents in the fourth quarter.
Combined with a more potent offense, Chicago looks like a championship contender.
The Bulls look to continue their surge Wednesday night when they host the Utah Jazz.
Chicago (25-10) has won 10 of 11 and is within 1 1/2 games of Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta despite allowing 98.8 points per game, its most since giving up 99.1 in 2009-10. The Bulls had allowed no more than 92.9 per game over the past four seasons after Tom Thibodeau took over as coach.
They’ve played their best defense in the fourth quarter, however, limiting teams to an average of 23.6 points on a league-low 39.1 percent shooting, which would be the club’s lowest mark of the past decade.
Chicago outscored Houston 31-16 and held it to 6-of-23 shooting in the final period of Monday’s 114-105 home win.
"We picked up our defense," Joakim Noah, who had six blocks and two steals, told the team’s official website. "It was a competitive game. It had almost a playoff feel to it, especially toward the end. Probably one of our biggest wins of the year."
James Harden, who had scored 15-plus second-half points in four of five, was held to three points in the final 24 minutes on 0-for-9 shooting while being primarily guarded by Jimmy Butler.
"He’s an incredible defender," said Pau Gasol, who had 27 points and 14 rebounds. "No question about it. For me, probably the best perimeter defender in the league right now. It’s great to see him play the way he’s playing on both ends of the floor. He’s not content and satisfied just scoring points."
Offensively, the Bulls are averaging 103.1 points, their most since the Michael Jordan-led 1996-97 squad. They hadn’t averaged more than 96.3 over the last three seasons.
While Butler has been regarded as a quality defender virtually since he entered the league, he’s improved immensely on offense. He’s averaging 21.9 points, 8.8 more than he did last season – the largest jump by anyone who played in at least 75 percent of his team’s games in both seasons. He’s also shooting 48.1 percent after hitting only 39.7 percent in 2013-14.
Chicago has won seven of eight meetings with Utah, including a 97-95 road win Nov. 24 when it held the Jazz to 18 fourth- quarter points on 8-for-25 shooting. Butler scored 25 while Utah scoring leader Gordon Hayward was held to six points on 2-of-11 shooting and was 0 for 4 in the final 12 minutes.
The Jazz (12-23) are hoping to be healthier after Trey Burke sat out Monday’s 105-101 loss to Indiana with strep throat. Rookie Dante Exum matched a season high with 13 points while making his first start in Burke’s place, though Burke is expected to join the team for its three-game trip.
Alec Burks also missed a sixth straight game with a sore shoulder while Enes Kanter missed his second in a row due to a sprained right ankle.
"I thought our guys showed a lot of resolve and a little bit of toughness that I haven’t seen up to this point," coach Quin Snyder told the team’s official website. "There was a little edge I like and I hope we see more of."
The Bulls are looking for a seventh straight win against a West opponent for the first time since winning their last nine such matchups in 2010-11.