Chicago Bulls

Bulls struggle against 1st-place Rockets

Markkanen returns from lower back spasms

Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (right) dribbles as Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon defends during the first half  Tuesday in Houston.
Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (right) dribbles as Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon defends during the first half Tuesday in Houston.

HOUSTON – Three straight lopsided wins by the Houston Rockets isn’t exactly good preparation for the playoffs.

However, the Rockets believe their intensity in these games has showcased an important quality of the team.

“That’s what we as a veteran group are supposed to do,” Trevor Ariza said. “We’re supposed to play the same way every game no matter who the opponent is. Because at the end of the day, it’s never about the other team for us. Our mindset has to be that it’s always about us.”

Eric Gordon scored 31 points and tied a career high with eight 3-pointers on a night James Harden sat out, and the Rockets got their 10th straight win with a 118-86 rout of the Bulls on Tuesday.

Ariza added 21 points, and Chris Paul had 13 points and 10 assists in his return after missing the last three games with a sore hamstring.

“It’s all about energy and playing at a high level every night no matter who’s out, and it’s just been fun being around these guys,” Gordon said. “Most teams there might be a lack of interest against teams that are not going to the playoffs, [but] we still put the pedal to the metal.”

The NBA-leading Rockets became the first team since San Antonio in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season to have three winning streaks of at least 10 games in a season. They won 14 in a row from Nov. 16 to Dec. 18 and 17 straight from Jan. 28 to March 7.

Lauri Markkanen returned after missing Saturday’s game with lower back spasms and had 22 points for the Bulls, who dropped their sixth straight.

“They space the floor so well and are shooting from all over, it puts you in such a tough position,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I said the other day, they’re fun to watch, but no fun to play against.”

The Rockets had a 21-point lead at halftime, paced by 24 points from Gordon, and opened the third quarter with a 16-2 run to extend it to 76-41 with 7½ minutes left in the quarter. Ariza had eight points, powered by two 3-pointers in that stretch.

The Bulls couldn’t do anything right in that span, missing four shots and committing five turnovers, including one on a shot clock violation and another when David Nwaba stepped out of bounds.

Nwaba made the Bulls’ first basket in more than 3½ minutes, but the Rockets scored the next seven points to make it a 40-point lead with just more than five minutes left in the quarter.

After never trailing in their blowout wins over New Orleans and Atlanta, the Rockets spent 13 seconds behind Tuesday night after Cameron Payne put the Bulls up 2-0 with a basket early in the first.

Gordon’s first 3-pointer came next to put Houston up for good. It was the first of a 14-3 run that put the Rockets ahead 14-5 with about 8½ minutes left in the quarter.

Markkanen had the next seven points to get the Bulls within two, but an 11-2 spurt by Houston followed to extend the lead to 25-14.

The Bulls cut the lead to eight on a 3-pointer by Denzel Valentine about nine minutes before halftime before the Rockets used a 13-2 run to extend it to 51-32 five minutes later. It was 60-39 at halftime.

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