Given their inconsistency throughout this season, it might seem unwise to put stock in the Chicago Bulls' chances of qualifying for the play-in tournament in the Eastern Conference.
However, following their surprising 117-96 road victory over the West-leading Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, the Bulls entered Friday one game out of 10th place in the East and a coveted spot that would keep their season alive.
A road win over the Houston Rockets Saturday would further enhance an opportunity that didn't appear likely after Chicago dropped six consecutive games and fell a season-high-tying seven games under .500 entering the All-Star Game break.
Hope springs eternal, in part due to the elevated play of Bulls guard Zach LaVine, who poured in 29 points on 12-of-18 shooting against the Nuggets. LaVine is averaging 30.7 points since the All-Star break, carrying an offensive load Chicago needs to thrive. Even with DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic on hand, LaVine has been the Bulls' best player for a lengthy stretch. His ascension has been a revelation of sorts.
Similarly crucial to the Bulls' playoff aspirations is their ability to put what has been a rocky season behind them in time to maximize this stretch run. Of their 16 remaining games, only four are against teams out of playoff contention. What Chicago did in Denver will have to be the norm and not an aberration in order for the Bulls to make a true run at the play-in tournament.
"At this point, we don't care about what happened before," LaVine said. "We have to win every game. We are trying to win every game because that is the position we put ourselves in. Each win is a big-time win if it is versus Denver or versus anybody. So that is just the mentality going forward to give ourselves a chance to get where we want to go."
Based on their showing against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, the Rockets might not make for an easy mark. Despite dwelling in the West cellar, the Rockets roared back from an 18-point deficit and took a lead late in the fourth quarter before succumbing 134-125 in overtime at Indiana.
The loss marked another for Houston without a key contributor, as guard Kevin Porter Jr. (thigh) sat, although he has been ruled probable against the Bulls.
As has been the case lately, the Rockets turned to myriad options to contribute offensively, with rookie forward Jabari Smith Jr. producing the best game of his young career with 30 points and 12 rebounds, including a game-tying 3-pointer with five seconds left that forced the extra period.
The Rockets also received strong showings from Jalen Green (24 points, four assists) and Kenyon Martin Jr. (23 points on 9-of-13 shooting), plus an impactful performance from Jae'Sean Tate off the bench (13 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one block). At 22 years and 62 days old, Martin was the oldest member of the starting lineup against the Pacers. What Houston showed despite its inexperience was ample moxie.
"It's progress," Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. "It's fight, getting down a bunch fighting back, finding lineups that hadn't played together much but fighting. Yes, progress. We're getting there.
"These guys with 17 games to go are fighting really hard, and that's progress."
--Field Level Media