[Photo: NBA.com]

There were quite a few games on the NBA slate Wednesday evening – thirteen of them, to be exact – but amidst the controlled chaos of the schedule, two matches in particular stood out above the rest: Chicago at Toronto and Houston at New Orleans.

Here’s a quick recap of the action from both:

Chicago brushes aside Raptors

The Chicago Bulls stormed north of the border and soundly handled the Toronto Raptors in their own building last night, winning by a score of 116-103. The matchup was particularly important in the wasteland known as the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, as Chicago and Toronto are currently jockeying with each other for the third seed and the right to play either Milwaukee or Miami in the first round – both of whom are currently under .500 – as opposed to the more respectable Washington Wizards.

Jimmy Butler racked up 23 points to pace the Bulls, who put five players in double figures and shot over 60% from the field. The Toronto defense was putting out fires all night – in the end they gave up 12 three-pointers and sent Chicago to the line for 17 freebies.

The Raptors kept themselves in this one with their efforts on the offensive glass, where they managed to corral ten boards for extra possessions, helping to contribute to a healthy total of 40 points in the paint. They actually led in this game as late as the fourth quarter, but with the way the Bulls were shooting, the slumping Raptors never really stood much of a chance.
The win moves the Bulls to 44-29, putting them a game and a half ahead of the Raptors with less than ten games left to play. Considering they hold the tie-breaker – they’ve won five straight games against Toronto – they seem to have secured themselves a pretty comfortable grip on the East’s third seed going down the stretch. The loss leaves Toronto at 42-30.
They’re now just two games up on fifth-seeded Washington, however they’re in no danger of being passed, as they’re essentially guaranteed a top-four seed (and home-court advantage in the first round) by virtue of winning their division.

Chicago’s next contest won’t be until Saturday, at home against the Knicks. Toronto gets back in action on Friday against the visiting Lakers.

Rockets sneak past Pelicans in Howard’s return

Dwight Howard was back on the court last night for the first time in over two months, but he played only 16 minutes and wasn’t much of a factor. Lucky for the Rockets, they have more than enough factors on their roster to go around.
Houston snuck away with a thrilling 95-93 win in New Orleans last night, toppling a Pelicans team that was downright desperate for a win after having lost three straight coming into this one. New Orleans’s hopes of a playoff spot are beginning to fade fast.

The Rockets’ balanced attack was led by – who else? – MVP-candidate James Harden with a line of 25 points, 10 dimes and 6 rebounds, but they also received critical contributions from Trevor Ariza on the wing (22 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) and Donatas Motiejunas down low (21 points, 8 boards).
The Pelicans were led by Tyreke Evans with 28 bullish points, and the other MVP-candidate in this game – one Unibrow Davis – finished with a “ho-hum-I’m-Anthony-Davis” line of 24 points, 14 boards, 3 steals and 3 blocks. It wasn’t enough for the win against the rocket-fueled Rockets. New Orleans led by as many as 17 in this one, practically teasing their fans with a taste of victory before going on to suffer the heart-breaking two-point loss.
The win propels Houston to 48-23, just a game-and-a-half behind the second-place Grizzlies in the West, who lost Wednesday night against Cleveland. Looking the other way, the Rockets maintain their one-and-a-half game lead over the streaking Clippers, who’ve won five in a row and are their closest competition from behind.
For New Orleans, the loss may very well have driven a dagger in the remains of their playoff hopes. It drops them to a record of 37-34, leaving them sitting in tenth place in the west – 3.5 games out of a playoff spot with just 11 games left to play.
Houston gets back to action on Friday, heading back home to take on the hapless Timberwolves. The Pelicans next play Friday as well, with what’s left of their season on the line at home against the Kings.

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