After knocking off the two-time defending champions in overtime, the Chicago Bulls didn’t look very prepared to take on another of the league’s top teams.
They won’t have to wait long to get a crack at another NBA heavyweight.
The Bulls look to avoid a rare set of back-to-back losses Thursday night as they continue a difficult six-game homestand against a Houston Rockets team that’s also been excellent at bouncing back.
Chicago (35-29) lost at Houston and Oklahoma City on consecutive nights in mid-December, but it’s 12-1 following a defeat since then.
The Bulls beat Miami 95-88 in overtime on Sunday but fell behind 51-19 in the second quarter Tuesday, when a season-high 63-point second half couldn’t save them in a 104-96 loss to San Antonio.
"I told them, that’s completely on me. My job is to have them ready. We had no edge to us,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. "That’s a championship-caliber team that’s playing on all cylinders and they’re going after it, so if you don’t match that intensity to start, you are going to get in a big hole."
Jimmy Butler didn’t quite agree with his coach after the midway point of a homestand that will also feature Sacramento and Oklahoma City.
"It’s on us," Butler told the team’s official website. "We’re the ones out there playing. We’ve got to bring it each and every night. Thibs can only do so much. … (Houston is) the same type of team San Antonio is, make shots, get in the open floor. We’ve got to be ready."
The Bulls haven’t been able to keep up with the Rockets (44-20) recently, dropping four straight and the last two by a combined 38 points. James Harden (26), Chandler Parsons (23) and Jeremy Lin (20) led the way in a 120-97 win in their last trip to the United Center on Christmas Day 2012, and Dwight Howard put up a game-high 23 in Houston’s 109-94 victory on Dec. 18.
Joakim Noah and the Bulls couldn’t contain Howard and the Rockets inside in that one, allowing a season-high 66 points in the paint.
Noah had six points and 10 rebounds in that loss, but he’s been a different player of the past month. He’s averaged 14.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.1 blocks while leading the Bulls to 11 wins in 15 games.
Howard averaged 22.8 points in February while shooting 65.4 percent, but he’s putting up 16.5 points per game and shooting 55.4 percent through six games in March. His worst of the month came as he dealt with foul trouble Tuesday, when he was held to nine points and missed eight of 12 field-goal attempts in a testy 106-98 loss at Oklahoma City.
"I told the guys I feel like I could have done a better job and that I let them down tonight," Howard said. "I need to be more dominant on both ends of the floor, and I didn’t do that tonight so I was upset about that."
The Rockets, who have lost consecutive games just once in 2014, fell to 2-1 on a five-game gauntlet against the Pacers, Trail Blazers, Thunder, Bulls and Heat that concludes Sunday in Miami.
"From here on our every game is going to be a playoff atmosphere," Harden said. "We’ve had a couple already, one (Tuesday), one Thursday and then another one on Sunday.
"Every game is going to be emotional and we’ve got to do a great job of fighting through it and not getting sidetracked but focusing on the main goal."
Harden has scored 73 points on just 40 field-goal attempts in three games against the Bulls since joining Houston, while Parsons has averaged 20.0 points and 9.0 rebounds – hitting 9 of 12 3s – in those wins.