The surging Chicago Bulls have established themselves as one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference, thanks in part to the addition of Pau Gasol.
They’re set to face the Houston Rockets, who have been inconsistent of late but looked every bit like one of the top clubs in the West in their last game.
Seeking a 10th win in 11 games, the Bulls may also have Jimmy Butler back for Monday night’s showdown at the United Center.
These powerhouses could be at close to full strength with Butler likely to return after missing Saturday’s 109-104 overtime win over Boston to attend a funeral. The fourth-year guard, named NBA player of the week Dec. 29 along with Houston’s James Harden, is averaging a career-high 21.9 points for the Central Division leaders.
The Bulls (24-10) have also gotten a huge boost from Gasol, as the four-time All-Star is averaging 18.0 points and a team-leading 11.2 rebounds. He scored a season high-tying 29 to go with 16 boards against the Celtics as Chicago won for the ninth time in 10 games.
"Pau has been great," center Joakim Noah told the team’s official website. "He has been huge for us all season. He is one of the constants every night. He adds a whole different dimension with his scoring."
Gasol also added five blocks after swatting away a career-high nine shots two nights earlier against Denver. He’s averaging a career-high 2.4 blocks and could prove to be the missing piece for a Bulls team that appears poised for a deep postseason run.
"I’m a confident guy," he said. "I’m a competitor. You always have to hope for the best and be positive and optimistic. I didn’t know what was going to happen, how I was going to fit in. But I knew I was going to try and do my best to provide everything and give us the best chance to win a title."
The Rockets (23-10) also have championship aspirations thanks largely to Harden, who leads the league with 27.2 points per game. He’s averaged 30.3 in the past 13 games and shot 54.1 percent in the last seven.
Despite Harden’s efforts, Houston has dropped five of nine. The Rockets suffered their most lopsided defeat of the season Friday, 111-83 at New Orleans before bouncing back with a 115-79 rout of Miami the following night.
"The effort and the energy was just a little bit different," center Dwight Howard said. "I don’t know what happened in that game (Friday night), but it happened … we’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t happen again."
Howard had 23 points and 13 rebounds after averaging 12.0 and 6.0 in the previous three games. He’s averaged 14.8 points in his last four against Chicago but could be extra motivated going up against Gasol – his former Lakers teammate.
The Rockets had taken four straight from Chicago before falling 111-87 in their last visit March 13. Howard had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven turnovers while Harden finished with eight points and shot 2 of 7.
Harden has averaged 20.3 points in four meetings with the Bulls over the previous two seasons. He averaged 25.7 overall in that span.
Derrick Rose has scored 30.0 points per game in his last three against the Rockets but hasn’t faced them since 2010-11, when he went on to be named NBA MVP. Rose is still trying to recapture that form, averaging 12.5 points and 24.4 percent shooting in the last four contests.
The Bulls have won five straight against the West while Houston is 8-2 against East opponents, including 3-0 on the road.
Chicago could again be without forward Mike Dunleavy due to an ankle injury.