Keys to the Game: Bulls at Suns (02.10.17)

Well now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to move onto something else.

That’s the approach the Chicago Bulls (26-27) need to take this evening when they tip-off against the Phoenix Suns (16-37) down in the Arizona desert.   

Wednesday’s 123-92 spanking at the hands of the Golden State Warriors is now a thing of the past. The experience was sort of like going to the dentist. Nobody really enjoys it, but you have to see him at least twice every 12 months. Sometimes you get lucky and you don’t have any cavities, but other times you get the drill, and that is what happened the other night in Oakland, California — the Bulls got drilled.

Meeting Golden State on its home floor, even at full strength, is tough enough, as the ‘Dubs record at Oracle Arena before Wednesday was 100-7. But going toe-to-toe while two of your top players are out of the lineup? Eh, that’s something that ought to be avoided, but Chicago didn’t have a choice as Jimmy Butler was sidelined again with a foot injury, and Dwyane Wade ended up being a late scratch due to illness. Thus it’s really not a big surprise the Bulls started slow and never got on track, as they committed six first-quarter turnovers, and then on top of that lost another player, Paul Zipser specifically, to injury early in the game.

The Bulls, who this season have taken up residence at the bottom of the NBA long distance shooting pool, connected on just 4-of-24 (16.7%) from beyond the arc, while the Warriors on the other hand feasted from far away, knocking down 15 3-pointers (15-of-28 53.6%) and shot 48-of-86 (55.8%) overall and doled out 37 assists.

As for the Phoenix Suns, they head home this evening after falling 110-91 at Memphis, Wednesday. It was Phoenix’s eighth loss in their last nine tries, and like the Bulls, the Suns had an awful night from the field, shooting a season-low 5-for-23 (21.7%) from 3-point range, and 29-for-87 (33.3%) overall.

Second-year guard Devin Booker led the Phoenix attack, notching a team-high 20 points, while Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe added 16 points apiece. Booker is hoping this 20-point night is the start of another long 20+ point streak. From January 1 through February 4, the 21-year old, 6’6” former Kentucky Wildcat posted 16 straight 20-or-more point games. During this impressive run, Booker averaged 26.6 points, while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 47.7 percent from three. Clearly, he’s going to be someone the Bulls will need to pay a lot of attention to this evening.

Speaking of tonight, some good news could be at hand for Chicago as it looks like Butler will return to the hardwood. The three-time All-Star participated fully in yesterday’s practice and afterwards proclaimed he felt much better and planned on playing. His possible return would undoubtedly provide a major boost, as so far the Bulls have split the first four games of this current six-game road swing, winning once with Butler (at OKC) and once without (at Sacramento). A victory this evening or Sunday in Minnesota would give Chicago, at worst a breakeven split. After Sunday afternoon’s contest, the Bulls return home to begin a stretch of six of the next seven at the United Center, including a rematch with the Suns.   

Besides the probable return of Butler, for the Chicago to get back on its feet they will need to hit the floor with energy and focus, and another positive step in that direction would be a return of Wade to the lineup, but as of this writing, that’s still a questionable proposition, at best. However, tonight will also be a homecoming of sorts for Bulls starting center, Robin Lopez, who began his career with the Suns as the 15th pick of the 2008 NBA Draft.

Lopez, who played his first four seasons in Phoenix, had another strong game last time out, posting 17 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against the Warriors. Over his last five, including the first four games of this current road trip, the 7-footer out of Stanford is averaging 15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists while shooting 34-for-59 (57.6%).

A good indication most nights as to how well the Bulls are going to do is how hard they crash the boards. Chicago currently leads the league in both overall and offensive rebounding, averaging 46.9 and 13.0, respectively. So far this season the Bulls are 21-16 whenever they win the battle of the boards.

Since neither Chicago nor Phoenix has proven adept at outside shooting this season, with the Suns ranking 21st in the league (44.5%) and the Bulls, 26th (44.1%), most likely there will be a number of opportunities to snare errant shots, and thus another important aspect that ought to favor the Bulls this evening is that they are tied with Denver as the league’s best second-chance scoring team, posting an impressive 15.6 extra-helpers per game. Lopez has been absolutely fantastic in the field of put-backs, as well as Taj Gibson, who scored 15 points and snagged three offensive boards against Golden State the other night.

Offensively, Chicago is at its best whenever they push the pace, consistently running the ball up the floor while also making sure it jumps from player-to-player and from side-to-side. When the Bulls up the tempo and do a good job of sharing, the scoreboard has a tendency to light up. For example, Chicago is 14-7 whenever they post 23-or-more assists in a game, averaging 109.3 points, which is a significant difference compared to the 102.4 points a game the Bulls average overall.

Another important offensive component that needs to emerge if Chicago is to succeed is that they need to space the floor. Although the Bulls won’t win many jump-shooting contests, by scattering shooters around the three-point arc, defenders, especially if some of the Bulls knock down a couple of open jumpers early on, have to slide out of the paint, which then offers opportunities for Chicago’s guards to aggressively attack the rim, forcing the defense to overreact and oftentimes foul.

As a team, the Bulls have done a fantastic job of getting to the free throw line. Coming into tonight, they rank in the top 10 in free throws attempted (9th at 24.6), free throws made (5th at 19.6) and overall free throw shooting (7th at 79.7%). In taking a closer look at the numbers, the Bulls have made a total of 1,305 trips to the line and converted 1,040, while opponents have made only 979 trips (326 less free throw attempts) and converted 747 (293 less made free throws).

n this vein, Butler has taken his game to another level by being more aggressive in attacking the basket and making his way to the charity stripe on a regular basis. As of this evening, he ranks third in the NBA in free throws made per game (8.2) and fourth in free throws attempted (9.5). He’s scoring a career-best 24.6 points while also shooting a career-best 86.8% from the line. Thus obviously his possible return to the lineup would provide a major lift for the Bulls, as Chicago has lost four out of the five games he’s had to miss this season.   

In short, Chicago’s mission is to come out fast and aggressive at both ends of the floor. It’s important that the Bulls take control of the boards, and do so right away. At no time can they afford to relax. The Suns are powered by their quick and talented guards, all of whom love to run. As a team, Phoenix is second in the league in fastbreak scoring, posting 18.7 points in transition. So if Chicago fails to corral a missed shot, it’s important they hustle back on defense, otherwise the Suns could easily turn tonight into a track meet.

Defensively, the Bulls need to be quick and decisive, especially when it comes to rotating to help cover an area or alter an attack at the basket. Chicago’s guards and wings also need to be wise when choosing to jump the passing lanes in hopes of upsetting Phoenix’s offensive flow.         

—    Anthony Hyde