Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Suns (02.22.20)

Tonight, at the United Center the Bulls and the Phoenix Suns tip-off against one another for the first time this season. Chicago will travel to the Valley of the Sun to close the book on the series in a little over six weeks from today (April 5th). The Bulls swept the series last year, 2-0, and hold 71-68 lifetime edge, including a 44-25 advantage when the teams get together in the Windy City.

Tonight's contest is the beginning of a three-games-in-four-nights stretch for Chicago, who will meet the Washington Wizards tomorrow evening at 6pm here at the UC, and then OKC on Tuesday, again at the UC. For the Suns, tonight is the second of a back-to-back set, as they're in the middle of a three-game road swing, having played in Toronto yesterday, and after tonight, they're off to Utah to play the Jazz, Monday.

Chicago takes the floor this evening in desperate search of a win after dropping their last seven in row. Against Charlotte on Thursday, the Bulls got off to a miserable start, missing their first 17 3-pointers before Zach LaVine finally knocked one home from downtown early in the third quarter. LaVine's long toss helped to turn the tables—somewhat—as Chicago went on to shoot 50% from behind the arc (7-of-14) the rest of the night, and even cut a once 21-point deficit to just two in the fourth, but in the end it wound up being too little, too late. The Bulls couldn't quite dig themselves out of the massive hole they put themselves in at the beginning of the game, eventually falling 103-93.

Thaddeus Young led Chicago's attack with season highs of 22 points and 11 rebounds, while LaVine chipped in 19 to go along with seven assists and three steals.

For Chicago to stop the bleeding and come out on top tonight they're going to have to produce a consistent, hardnosed, blue collar effort at both ends of the floor. Offensively, they must play fast, and freely share the ball, crisply skipping it from player-to-player and from side to side to uncover open shots and driving lanes to basket. Every player must be engaged in the action. A free-flowing, unselfish rhythm, where everyone moves in and out of the paint and around the bend is vital.

Prior to last night in Toronto, the Suns have had a knack of getting off to hot starts. In their last four games prior to the All-Star break, Phoenix totaled 147 combined first quarter points while shooting 65.1% from the field and 55.6% from three-point range. Their biggest scoring threat is All-Star guard Devin Booker. Since Christmas, Booker ranks 7th in the NBA in scoring at 29.0 points per game and has posted 30+ points in 15 of 25 games.

Another player to focus a lot of attention on is 6'11" second-year center Deandre Ayton. Prior to last night, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has put up 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in four of his last five games, averaging 22.2 points on 54.2% shooting plus 13.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.0 blocks. Thus, defensively, Chicago will need to deliver a very gritty effort, going all out for every rebound, diving after for every loose ball, and collectively, stay glued to both Booker and Ayton while they're on the floor.

Both teams have had to deal with a lot of injuries this season, however, Chicago's current cast, cane and crutch crew is far bigger. Against Charlotte the other night the Bulls had only nine players available. Out of action were starters Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., as well as Kris Dunn and Chandler Hutchison. There's a chance Porter Jr. (out since November 6th with a fractured foot) and/or Carter Jr. (out since January 6th with a high ankle sprain) could suit up this evening, however Markkanen, Dunn and Hutchison are out. As for Phoenix, local product, Frank Kaminsky III (right patella stress fracture) has missed the last 23 games and won't be reevaluated for at least another three weeks, while back up big man Aron Bayes (sore left hip) had missed 13 in row before last night.