Bulls fall to Suns without LaVine and White, Devin Booker goes off

The Bulls outrebounded the Suns by 18 but were unable to contain the Phoenix guard
by Sam Smith
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The Bulls kept it close, despite being without Zach LaVine and Coby White, but was unable to pull out the win - falling to the Phoenix Suns 121-116. Phoenix guard Devin Booker scored 45 points, the most points a Suns player has ever scored against the Bulls. Three plays had double-doubles for Chicago, led by 24 points and ten rebounds from Nikola Vucevic. The Bulls (19-27) will look to get right against the league-leading Utah Jazz (36-11).

It wasn't the worst that could happen. The sun will come up tomorrow.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, the Suns came out last night, Wednesday. And despite what Thad Young described as one of the best blocked shots he's ever seen, one by Patrick Williams that was even trending on Twitter. And the introduction of a Bulls jumbo lineup with seven footer Lauri Markkanen at small forward and no one under 6-7 that resulted in an 18-4 advantage in offensive rebounds and 50-32 overall, the Bulls lost their fifth straight game, 121-116 to the Phoenix Suns.

The Bulls still are seeking that oasis of success somewhere in this desert of defeat.

"I think we are getting closer," insisted Young, one of three Bulls with a double-double with 19 points and ten rebounds. "Defensively, we've just got to get better. Biggest thing is just getting the guys acclimated to how we play defensively. We made some adjustments; we are going to keep making adjustments. We have to figure out how to get some wins and string together some wins and move up."

Because even with the acquisition of star center Nikola Vucevic, who had 24 points and ten rebounds as Markkanen added 16 points and ten rebounds, the Bulls are down, though still 10th in the Eastern Conference for the last play-in spot. The schedule eases after this brutal stretch with 10 games in 10 different cities, nine on the road. The Bulls at 19-27 are two games ahead of Toronto and Washington, but now three games out of eighth.

Nikola Vucevic knotched his first career double-double as a Bull, scoring 24 points along with ten rebounds.

They contested the Suns to the last seconds despite falling behind by 16 points early in the third quarter. And with Zach LaVine, missing his first game of the season with a sprained ankle, Coby White and Garrett Temple all out injured. The Bulls did get a bounce back 19 points from Denzel Valentine and 16 points from Williams.

But Phoenix' guards sliced up the Bulls defenses and big guards, a season high 45 points from Devin Booker and 19 points and 14 assists from Chris Paul. Not that there are many around like Paul, but his ease getting to mid range shots and finding open teammates is such an advantage while the Bulls ball movement was a group effort. It sounds good in theory and encompasses many of the Billy Donovan season long lessons on unselfish play, but it simplifies things when a team can count on someone to make so many plays for teammates. Paul had three fewer assists that the Bulls five starters combined.

But Donovan said it was the defense, especially as he's been noting recently the lack of physical play against opposing guards.

"I didn't think we had enough physicality," said Donovan. "I think that they shot the ball really well from behind the (three-point) line, but I didn't think we contested very well. We weren't into the ball at all. The ball is just coming right off screens and our guards have got to get into the ball and they have to guard the ball. I thought they did a much better job in the second half than we did in the first half. But certainly the number of points we gave up for the game was too many."

Billy Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's 121-116 loss to Phoenix.

But it's also more difficult when their guards are smaller and quicker, and because of the injuries the 6-8 Williams had to defend Booker.

A little help?

The Bulls didn't offer that much with the Suns making 10 of 18 threes in the first half.

"We couldn't stop Devin Booker," Young agreed. "He was huge for them tonight, 17 for 24. Just realizing we have to be up and get the ball out of his hands and kind of make other people be scorers and facilitators as opposed to him."

The Bulls did a pretty good job on the other eight guys; you know, like most of the other teams do. The Bulls thanks to the addition of Vucevic did a lot better against Deandre Ayton than last time when he scored 22 in the Suns win in Chicago. Ayton had 10 points and just four rebounds while Vucevic has been doing what's been expected. He's averaging 22 points, 9.3 rebounds and four assists in his three games as a Bull and shooting 55 percent. The opposing centers have averaged 14 points and none have grabbed double figure rebounds.

"Vooch is an experienced defender," noted Donovan. "He's been around and has guarded a lot of these guys, so he knows how to do it. He's got really good hands when shots go up there as well. We didn't really feel the need that we needed to go down there and double much with him there."

That's a plus, though as determined as he was it's almost unfair to ask a big body like rookie Williams to defend one of the most elusive guards in the NBA. Typically, Williams blamed himself.

"The player I want to be in this league, I want to guard guys like that every night and also be able to do my part offensively," said Williams. "You're never going to shut down guys like that, but just make them work for their buckets. First half, I just wasn't physical. I let him get comfortable too often. That's on me. During the second half, I think I did that; we did that. But in the first half, I take responsibility for dropping the ball a little bit."Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting but had trouble defending Suns guard Devin Booker.

A segment in the second quarter when Williams had that highlight block demonstrated a microcosm of the dilemma facing the Bulls with Williams.

With the Suns leading by four on the way to a 67-58 halftime lead, Williams blocked Ayton as he was catching a lob pass to dunk, a phenomenal athletic play and reaction. Williams has the strength ti compete with the game's biggest players.

"I was in awe when I actually saw it happen in real time," marveled Young. "Pat's an elite athletic guy. He does a great job of getting high up on rebounds. It's definitely one of the best blocks I've ever seen as far as on a lob pass."

But then two possessions later, Booker blew by Williams and dunked, sending the Bulls into a timeout. As determined as Williams is, it's a lot to ask someone that size to slide and stay in front of these twitch quick guards.

"I thought Booker had a big night because he made all his mid-range jump shots, and I thought they were really tough," said Donovan. "It wasn't like he did it from behind the line. He really actually did it all from the mid-range. So give him credit for making the number of shots that he did."

It appeared like that might be Markkanen to start. Returning to the starting lineup with LaVine out after coming off the bench for the first time Monday, Markkanen came out attacking the basket, dunking on a cut and getting a three-point play with a driving bank shot in the first four minutes as the Bulls led 13-6. Is that you, Lauri?

Markkanen had 10 points and five rebounds in a sizzling first quarter. Though the Suns maneuvered to their spots easily, making two thirds of their shots and six of nine threes for a 39-37 lead after one.

"We're still having some miscues on coverages and some of the stuff we are doing out there," said Young. "If this was a regular year we'd have had a day of practice or a couple of days of practice to actually get some (of the new) guys acclimated to how we play. But we're trying to use time in shootarounds and stuff like that for practice time or going into a film session. If we can figure out a way to get some practice time, we'll definitely be a little bit better."

Deandre Ayton and Thad Young

Thad Young scored 19 points to go with ten rebounds against Phoenix.

The Suns continued to see daylight against Bulls defenders with Dario Saric opening the second quarter with a pair of threes and onto that nine-point halftime lead. The 33-14 Suns stretched their lead to 81-65 early in the third quarter before most Bulls noticed Vucevic was a teammate. Yes, it's been an adjustment. He got just five first half shots. But then he scored a dozen in the third as the Bulls got within five before trailing 94-86 going into the fourth quarter.

"They were doing a lot of switching and they were double-switching on the back side, and our guards couldn't really make the read real well," said Donovan. "There were times that he (Vucevic) was open that we were missing him. And then I think when we did get it to him, we got it to him too far from the basket and he had to work his way back into the lane. I've got to do something to help make it easy for him to get catches. I thought some of the catches in the first half were too hard. I thought in the second half we did a better job of getting it to him."

It looked for awhile like the Bulls might steal this one despite trailing most of the game. Though the Suns have a gaudy record and are second in the West, they seem like a vulnerable team because they rebound poorly and don't get to the free throw line much—usually—with their shooting game.

After playing just six minutes against the Spurs and sitting out against the Warriors in Donovan's personnel lab, Valentine got a prominent role often playing point guard and got the Bulls right back in with a runner and a three to open the fourth. When Markkanen made a three it was 99-96 Suns with 8:23 left and a good chance. But the Suns slowed things and banged their way into Bulls for 18 fourth quarter free throws, Booker and Paul were a combined 12 of 15. The Suns shot just 35 percent in the fourth.

While Young and Vucevic kept the Bulls close scoring off one another, three crucial possessions kept the Bulls from getting a chance for a last shot. Daniel Theis missed an ill-advised three trailing 107-101 with five minutes left. He was then pulled. Trailing 113-109 with three minutes left, the Bulls got consecutive offensive rebounds. But Valentine missed a three and Young missed inside. And then in sort of a last gasp trailing 117-112 with 30 seconds left, Saric took Valentine's dribble for a turnover.

And now the Bulls head for the mountains of Salt Lake City where they finally hope to reach some heights again.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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