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By JEFF MEZYDLO
(AP) -- Some uncharacteristically poor defense has plagued the Chicago Bulls during their current rough stretch.
How challenging their next test will be likely depends on the health of Houston's James Harden.
The visiting Bulls look to avoid losing three straight regular-season games for the first time in more than 2 1/2 years when they try to hand the Rockets a fourth consecutive defeat Wednesday night.
Over the past two seasons under coach Tom Thibodeau, Chicago has been the NBA's top defensive team allowing 89.9 points per game and holding opponents to 42.6 percent shooting. The Bulls (5-5) gave up 88.7 and held their foes to a 42.1 field-goal percentage while winning four of the first six but have since struggled to guard the basket.
In losing three of four, the Bulls have yielded an average 102.5 points. In Sunday's 102-94 loss to Portland, the Trail Blazers shot 49.4 percent.
"The defense right now, the intensity, we've got to get that part right," said Thibodeau, whose team is 1-2 on a five-game trip.
While Chicago has not dropped three in a row since a 10-game slide Feb. 27-March 19, 2010, it has not allowed 100 points in five straight contests since a 12-game stretch in the same season.
"We have to learn to put stops together," forward Luol Deng told the Bulls' official website. "I don't like comparing teams, but that's what we did well last year. The second unit came in and got stops in a row. Everyone talks about offense, but it's the stops we got. That's how we won games. And that's what we have to get back to."
One of the reasons for Chicago's solid defense and strong bench last year was the inside play of Omer Asik. Although the 7-foot center only averaged 1.0 blocks last season with the Bulls, he clogged the paint and forced opponents to adjust their shots.
After averaging 3.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 2011-12, the Rockets signed Asik to a three-year, $25 million contract in July for his presence in the paint. He's off to a strong start with his new team, averaging 10.0 points and 12.3 rebounds.
Despite upgrading the defense, the Rockets (4-7) return home after allowing an average of 113.3 points and 48.3 percent shooting on a winless three-game trip. Although they're 2-3 in Houston, the Rockets are playing much better defensively in front of their home fans, allowing an average of 95.8 points.
Houston's biggest concern in the opener of a three-game homestand is if Harden has recovered from his bout with the flu. Averaging 24.2 points, Harden scored six on 1-of-6 shooting while lasting 17 minutes in Monday's 102-91 loss at Utah
"We shut him down, gave him some medicine and tried to get him ready for Wednesday," said Kelvin Sampson, who continues to serve at acting head coach as Kevin McHale still deals with a family emergency.
The Jazz opened the second quarter with a 13-0 run and Rockets, who shot a season-low 34.9 percent, were never able to recover. Patrick Patterson had a season-high 19 points and Jeremy Lin added 13 on 5-of-15 shooting.
After signing a lucrative deal with Houston, Lin is averaging 6.6 assists but 10.5 points on 34.2 percent shooting.
Nate Robinson, one of the many new faces on Chicago's bench this season, had 18 points as the Bulls shot 49.3 percent against the Trail Blazers, but committed 19 turnovers.
With star Derrick Rose recovering from a torn ACL, Deng is averaging a team-high 18.1 points and Joakim Noah a career-high 14.8 with 10.0 boards.
Deng scored 24 and Noah added 15 when Chicago's five-game winning streak over the Rockets ended with a 99-93 home loss April 2.
Updated November 20, 2012