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Rockets pull away in fourth quarter to defeat Bulls

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HOUSTON — Rockets shooting guard James Harden and his All-Star counterpart with the Bulls, Jimmy Butler, had levied rousing haymakers in successive quarters that left the door open for one or the other to deliver the decisive blow with the game on the line in the final period.

Instead, it was the Rockets bench that knocked the Chicago Bulls into the ropes, sparking the breakaway rally in the fourth quarter in the Houston Rockets’ 101-90 victory on Wednesday night at Toyota Center.

Houston (34-15) opened the final period with a 13-0 blitz before Butler sank two free throws with 7:52 left. The Rockets’ surge, largely a product of transition offense, bumped their lead to 88-70 — a deficit too large for Chicago to overcome, even with a late push into single digits.

“That’s the way we play when that group is in,” said Rockets forward Trevor Ariza, the lone starter playing alongside guard Jason Terry, swingman Corey Brewer, and forwards Josh Smith and Terrence Jones. “If you get it off the (defensive) board, you just go with it and find the open man because we all can make plays, we all can dribble the ball up the court, and our basketball IQ is pretty good.”

Chicago (30-20) sliced that deficit in half with 1:48 remaining on a driving layup by Butler, who finished with a game-high-tying 27 points. Three Bulls posted double figures in rebounds as part of an overall performance that yielded a plus-13 rebounding advantage — forwards Pau Gasol (16 points, 12 rebounds) and Taj Gibson (12 points, 10 rebounds) and center Joakim Noah (a season-high 19 rebounds).

Guard Derrick Rose added 23 points for the Bulls, who have lost four of five games.

“Our margin for error is real small, so it’s hard to overcome that,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Rockets’ 13-0 run.

Although they surrendered 18 offensive boards and 21 second-chance points, the Rockets’ interior feistiness produced a surprisingly decisive advantage on points in the paint (50-28). Forwards Donatas Motiejunas (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Josh Smith (nine points, 13 rebounds) challenged the towering Bulls frontline and provided ample support for Harden, who matched Butler for game-scoring honors with 27 points.

“They’re so tall, they’re so athletic and long that we just kept battling,” Harden said. “Keep battling and get them off the glass. It was a collective effort on the boards and it was a great team win for us.”

Momentum swung with the performances of Harden and Butler.

Harden erupted for 13 consecutive points in the second quarter, mostly with Butler laboring in vain to provide quality defense. He began his tear with a transition layup before attacking Butler off the dribble.

His first such basket came on a step-back 3-pointer that left Butler stumbling and built the Rockets lead to 44-37. Harden followed with two driving layups and another splendid step-back jumper. He closed his run with free throws at the 2:08 mark that upped the lead to 52-43.

Without missing any of his five shots from the floor, Harden poured in 15 points in the second quarter. Houston extended its lead to 16 points in the third quarter before Butler responded, burying a series of jumpers en route to an 11-point period. He sank a 3 with 1:47 left to cut the deficit to 73-65 and Chicago trailed 75-70 entering the fourth after the Rockets missed all six of their 3-point attempts in the third quarter.

“We play hard in spurts, but we just can’t do it for 48 minutes right now,” Noah said. “We just have to figure that out.”

NOTES: Rockets C Dwight Howard underwent a bone marrow aspirate injection on his right knee Wednesday morning and will be re-evaluated in four weeks following rehab. The procedure was designed to offset swelling that has cost Howard 12 games this season. Howard missed his 17th game overall on Wednesday night. … Bulls F Mike Dunleavy missed his 17th consecutive game with a right ankle sprain. Chicago is 12-3 with its primary starting lineup of Dunleavy, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. … Rockets G James Harden was named Western Conference Player of the Month for a second consecutive time after averaging 25.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.2 steals over 17 games in January.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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