Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Suns (02.24.17)

Time to get back to work!

After a week away from the hardwood thanks to NBA All-Star Game, the Chicago Bulls (28-29) begin a stretch of four out of the next five games at home, beginning tonight with a rematch against the suddenly blistering hot Phoenix Suns (18-39) who torched Chicago, 115-97, two weeks ago out in the Arizona desert. Phoenix’s starting backcourt led the way that night as second-year shooter Devin Booker poured in 27 points while veteran playmaker Eric Bledsoe added 23. Jimmy Butler was Chicago’s top scorer with 20 points, followed closely by Dwyane Wade who chipped in 18.

Thanks to reserve forward TJ Warren, Phoenix broke open a fairly tight contest midway through the second quarter, outscoring Chicago 28-17 to commandeer a 56-43 lead at the half. The 6’8” 3rd-year wing hit 4-of-5 from the field during this stretch while the entire Chicago squad went ice cold, shooting 6-of-19 from the field (31.6%). The Suns also out hustled Chicago on the boards (15-8) and controlled the paint, outscoring the Bulls 14-4 down low to take control of the game.   

With yesterday’s NBA Trade Deadline now in the rearview mirror, both the Suns and Bulls begin a search for answers and consistency over the season’s final 25 games. Chicago is still very much in the playoff hunt, occupying the No. 7 seed in the East, while Phoenix is unlikely to make the postseason this time around, as they are 7 games back of Denver for the 8th and final spot in the West.

Both the Bulls and Suns completed trades at the wire yesterday, with Chicago dealing veteran power forward Taj Gibson and small forward Doug McDermott to OKC in exchange for 22-year old, second-year point guard Cameron Payne, 25-year old center/power forward Joffrey Lauvergne (La-Vern) and veteran swingman Anthony Morrow. Payne, a highly regarded, lightning-quick, 6’3” floor general from Murray State, was the 14th pick in the 2015 Draft. In OKC he was stuck behind potential league MVP Russell Westbrook, but with the Bulls, Payne will get an opportunity to showcase his skills at the highest level.

As of this writing, it’s not certain if any of the new Chicago players will be in the lineup tonight, but a couple of young Bulls champing at the bit, namely second-year power forward Bobby Portis and rookie Denzel Valentine, will definitely see plenty of action. Yesterday’s trade clears the way for Portis to step into the starting lineup, and also kicks open the door for Valentine to begin earning his keep, as he’s expected to take over McDermott’s reserve minutes. Portis enjoyed a breakout game the last time the Bulls played eight days ago, posting a season-high 19 points, 8 rebounds and a block in 26 minutes off the bench to help Chicago upset Boston, 104-103. Earlier this month Valentine spent time in the D-League with the Windy City Bulls, and over a two-game stretch, averaged an eye-popping 30.5 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

The Bulls certainly don’t expect Valentine to put up such gaudy numbers on a nightly basis facing the best players in the world, but at the same time he has proven that he is a quality NBA player deserving of a chance to play — and it certainly looks as if he is going to get that chance beginning tonight.      

As for Phoenix, they return from the All-Star break on a high note after hammering the Los Angeles Lakers, 137-101, last week. As a team, the Suns set season-highs for points scored (137), field goal percentage (55.7%), assists (32), blocks (10) and fastbreak points (41). Phoenix’s starters combined for 82 points while holding LA’s to just 44. Once again, the dynamic duo of Devin Booker (23 points) and Eric Bledsoe (25 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds) led the way. Booker is averaging 21.1 points in his second season out of Kentucky. The 6’6” shooter is on an impressive roll, having notched 20-or-more points in 20 of his last 22 games played. Bledsoe, also a Kentucky alum, is averaging a team-leading 21.6 points and 6.2 assists. He has scored in double-figures in 43 straight games.      

A pretty good indication as to how well the Bulls are going to play most nights is how hard they crash the boards. Chicago currently leads the NBA in both overall and offensive rebounding, averaging 46.5 and 12.8, respectively. So far the Bulls are 23-16 whenever they win the battle of the boards.

Since neither team has proven adept at shooting, with the Suns ranking 21st in the league (44.6%) and the Bulls 26th (44.0%), most likely there will be a number of opportunities to snare an errant shot or two (or three, of four …) tonight, and thus another important aspect that should favor the Bulls is that they are tied with Denver as the league’s best second-chance scoring team, posting an impressive 15.7 extra points a night.

Offensively, Chicago has shown they are at their best when they push the pace, consistently running the ball up the floor while also making sure the it jumps from player-to-player and from side-to-side. When the Bulls fire up the tempo and do a solid job of sharing the ball with each other, the scoreboard has a tendency to light up. For example, Chicago is 14-4 whenever they dish the most assists in a game, and for every victory they the achieve, the Bulls average 108.1 points scored, which is a substantial difference compared to 96.4 points they put up when they fall short.

An important offensive element that needs to materialize if Chicago is to succeed is that they need to do a good job of spacing the floor. Although the Bulls won’t win many jump-shooting contests, spreading out around the three-point arc forces defenders to move away from the paint, which then offers opportunities for Chicago’s guards to aggressively attack the rim, and oftentimes get fouled. As a team, the Bulls have done a fantastic job of getting to the free throw line this season. Coming into tonight, they rank 8th in free throws attempted (24.5), 4th in free throws made (19.6) and 7th in overall free throw shooting (80.0%).

In taking a closer look at the stats, the Bulls have connected on 1,117-of-1,397 free throw attempts while opponents are 817-of-1,062, which translates to 300 less made free throws and 335 less attempts than the Bulls.

In this manner, Jimmy Butler has taken his game to another level, aggressively attacking the basket at every opportunity, and in turn, making his way to the charity stripe far more often than most players. As of this evening, Butler ranks 4th in the league in free throws attempted (9.6) and 3rd in free throws made (8.4). He’s also scoring a career-best 24.5 points a night while shooting a career-best 86.8% from the line.

In short, Chicago’s mission is to come out fast and aggressive at both ends of the floor. It’s important that they 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, each of whom loves to run at every opportunity. As a team, Phoenix ranks 2nd in the league in fastbreak scoring (18.9), so if Chicago fails to round up a missed shot, it’s important they hustle back defensively, otherwise the Suns could easily take command of tonight’s game, turning it into a track meet.

Defensively, the Bulls need to be quick, decisive and aggressive in every way, shape and form.

—    Anthony Hyde