Rockets show Bulls — halfway home at 14-27 — how it’s done in Harden-less win

SHARE Rockets show Bulls — halfway home at 14-27 — how it’s done in Harden-less win
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The Bulls’ Bobby Portis couldn’t get his shot off against Houston’s Chris Paul Monday night at the United Center. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Let’s start with the backstory: Fred Hoiberg’s dalliance with the Suns during the offseason of 2005.

Hoiberg, then 32, had just completed the best three-point shooting season of his career. His time as a Timberwolves player nevertheless over, Hoiberg had a deal all but signed and sealed to join the Suns, whose coach, Mike D’Antoni, envisioned Hoiberg firing more threes than ever.

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Alas, an enlarged aortic valve in Hoiberg’s heart scuttled those plans; instead, he had surgery and hung up his high-tops. But D’Antoni’s offensive system — full of easy scores at the rim and long balls galore — stayed with Hoiberg, who had coaching aspirations of his own.

And that brings us to Monday at the United Center, where D’Antoni and his current team, the Rockets — second in scoring and tops in threes among all NBA teams and leading the Western Conference’s Southwest Division — beat Hoiberg’s Bulls 116-107.

It wasn’t a completely true test of where either team is at. The Rockets (28-11) were without league scoring leader James Harden — a left hamstring injury to blame — who pumped in 42 points at the United Center last season. The Bulls (14-27) were without Nikola Mirotic, too “flu”-ridden to play, if one chooses to believe that game-day diagnosis, amid reports of his ongoing desire to be traded.

Still, it was one veteran team putting on the sort of seemingly effortless offensive show the other, much younger team has mimicked only on occasion. The Bulls blinked, and the Rockets had made eight first-quarter threes. The Bulls watched Trevor Ariza (18 points) heat up, then Gerald Green (22), then Eric Gordon (24), then Chris Paul (24). Perimeter players, all, and natural fits in D’Antoni’s system.

“They’ve done a nice job of getting the right personnel,” Hoiberg said.

There were runs by the Bulls, but each one met an easy answer from Houston, which connected on 20 of an outrageous 54 attempts from beyond the arc. It left the Bulls — far removed from the seven-game winning streak that followed a 3-20 start — at the precise midpoint of the regular season and having dropped five of their last six.

It’s that personnel thing, of course. Hoiberg, in Year 3 with the Bulls, doesn’t have all his guys yet. Sweet-shooting big Lauri Markkanen? Check. Potential-packed point guard Kris Dunn? Check. Perimeter scorer Zach LaVine? He’ll return from his ACL injury and make his long-awaited Bulls debut any day now.

Mirotic has been outstanding when he has played, but he likely isn’t long for Chicago. Looking long-term, the rest of the roster is a collection of might-bes and won’t-bes.

Yet there undoubtedly are things to build on heading into the season’s second half. Markkanen has rediscovered his stroke, shooting 56.1 percent in January. Dunn is binging on assists. Denzel Valentine, one of those might-bes, is up to 21 double-figure scoring games after posting only 10 of them as a rookie. The Bulls have their most threes by far — 437 — through 41 games and have eight victories against teams with .500-or-better records.

“When I look at the progression of Kris Dunn, what Lauri continues to show — he gets better every time he steps on the floor — some of our other guys making impacts and not even seeing Zach LaVine yet, it’s been exciting to see what this team can do,” Hoiberg said. “When we play the right way, which is unselfish basketball with great pace, we can hang with anybody in the league.”

Has the rest of the NBA caught on to the Bulls’ improvement? Or do other teams look at them and still see a 3-20 disaster?

“I really don’t know if they’ve noticed,” Dunn said, “but we’ve noticed the difference. We flipped the season around.”

But there are 41 games still to go. How will things stack up from here?

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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