Rockets-Bulls Preview

Having fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls are hoping the expected return of Jimmy Butler will inject some life into their fading playoff hopes.

The problem with that is the Bulls weren't playing that great before Butler's injury.

Butler looks to help Chicago avoid dropping under .500 this late in a season for the first time in six years when it hosts the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

While his teammates were in Florida suffering a pair of blowout losses, Butler put the finishing touches on his rehab for a sprained left knee. The coaching staff reportedly won't be monitoring his minutes in his first game action since Feb. 5.

The Bulls (30-30) lost that night and then dropped eight of the next 11. Another defeat and they'll fall under .500 after 60 games for the first time since they were 40-41 on April 13, 2010.

While Chicago will certainly welcome the return of Butler, who averages a team-leading 22.4 points and is one of the league's premier defenders, its struggles began long before the two-time All-Star went down.

The Bulls lost 10 of the last 14 games Butler played, averaging 99.8 points in those contests. They're averaging 101.4 points in his absence but their defense has really taken a step back.

Chicago has yielded at least 100 points in 15 consecutive games, its longest such streak since allowing opponents to reach triple digits in 25 straight contests in Michael Jordan's second season of 1985-86.

A night after facing an 11-point first quarter-deficit in a 129-111 loss to Miami, the Bulls fell behind by 14 less than 10 minutes into Wednesday's 102-89 defeat to Orlando.

''It's frustrating because we dig ourselves a hole again coming out of the gate,'' coach Fred Hoiberg said. ''It's a trend that must stop if you want to make any kind of push. ... We've got 22 games left to figure this out.''

The Bulls will be tested by the high-powered Rockets (30-31), who have averaged 117.5 points in their last four road games and managed to reach the century mark Wednesday even though they had an historically bad shooting performance.

By going 3 of 35 from 3-point range, Houston became the first team in NBA history to make fewer than four 3s on 30 or more attempts, but still beat New Orleans 100-95.

James Harden went 1 of 9 on 3-pointers but was 10 of 15 from inside the arc while making 16 of 18 free throws to led all scorers with 39.

The Rockets, who trailed by nine in the second half, clamped down defensively late to pull away, limiting the Pelicans to 19 points while forcing five turnovers in the fourth quarter.

''Even though our shots weren't falling, we still relied on our defense, and that's what got us the win,'' said Harden, averaging 36.0 points in the last five games.

Houston improved to 13-3 when allowing 100 or fewer points. The Bulls have averaged 90.7 in three of the four games during their losing streak.

Derrick Rose picked up the scoring slack for a while when Butler was out, averaging 26.0 points over a three-game stretch, but sat out the next three with a hamstring injury. He has totaled 33 points in two games since returning.

''There are no excuses,'' Rose said. ''The season is not over. We still have a shot to be in the playoffs. This is foreign ground to a lot of us. We've got to find ways to make it up.''

The Rockets, holding onto eighth place in the West, have won five of seven against the Bulls.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.