The Bulls are back in action this evening hosting All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns. This is the first of two meetings between the teams. Chicago will travel to the Valley of the Sun to close out the series at the end of March.
The Bulls come into tonight winners of three in a row, and five out of their last six games, after knocking off the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime Wednesday night, 133-126. The Suns have been on a nice roll as well, as they've won nine of their last 11, however they came up short Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets, 124-121.
Newly minted All-Star Zach LaVine posted 35 points against Minnesota to lead Chicago to the win. LaVine shot a blistering 14 of 21 (.667) from the field, including 5 of 8 (.625) from downtown, and his teammates followed suit, as the Bulls hit 55 of 93 (.591) overall. Seven Bulls reached double figures in scoring, including LaVine's backcourt mate, Coby White, who put 20 on the board, and starting center Wendell Carter Jr. who notched his second straight double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
As for the Suns, despite the loss to Charlotte the other night, they've been playing some great basketball of late. They got off to a fast start against the Hornets, leading at one point by 17 in the first half, but eventually fell back to earth, holding a slim 67-66 lead at the half. By the end of the third quarter Charlotte was able to catch and pass Phoenix, taking a 97-91 lead into the final quarter. The Hornets' hot streak carried over into the early part of the fourth as they pushed their advantage to 11 before the Suns went on an 11-0 run to catch the Buzz City ballers. Charlotte returned serve with a 7-0 run of their own to reclaim the lead and gain some breathing room, but Booker and Paul orchestrated a late push to draw Phoenix within three, with Booker launching a last second trey attempt that bounced off the rim when the horn sounded.
Booker, who was named as an All-Star injury replacement for LA Lakers forward Anthony Davis prior to tip-off, led all scorers with 33 points on 13 of 24 shooting. Chris Paul, who also made the All-Star team for the 11th time in his illustrious career, contributed 20 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.
As has been written numerous times, a chief goal every game for Chicago is to come out of the gates fast and aggressive from the opening tip. The Bulls are at their best when they run downhill and establish a fast pace to the game. When they collectively go hard after every rebound and loose ball, and immediately streak down the floor to attack the basket before the defense has time to set up, good things happen.
For Chicago's offense to run efficiently, the ball has to hop freely from player-to-player. Quick, unselfish passing forces defenses to overreact, and break down. Quick, decisive passing also helps to free up driving lanes to the rim and generate uncluttered looks for shooters stationed all around the 3-point arc.
It is absolutely vital the Bulls do not allow their offense to slow down or fall into the trap of running an isolation attack where the ball sticks in the hands of one player and he attempts to go one-on-one. Continuous movement, both ball and player, in and out of the paint and all around the arc is critical to creating a free-flowing offensive tempo.
Still, having said that, it is absolutely vital the Bulls keep turnovers in check by eliminating sloppy passing and ballhandling miscues as much as possible. Turnovers lead to momentum swings. The primary objective each game is to bury opponents early and harass and smother them until the final horn goes off.
To come out on top tonight Chicago needs to take command the boards, but that's going to be a tough challenge because of Phoenix center Deandre Ayton. The highly athletic 6'11" pivot ranks in the top 5 on the boards and is especially active on the offensive glass. As a collective unit, the Bulls will need to hit the glass hard at both ends of the floor, and must do a far better job in limiting second-chance scoring opportunities for the Suns, as they didn't do a very good job of keeping Minnesota in check, which allowed a 7-26 team to push the game into overtime.
Defensively, the Bulls must not allow Booker to roam free and fire uncontested shots at will. There's a reason he's a two-time All-Star. He can score with the best of them. His shot is smooth and deadly if not contested.
Paul is another key player for the Suns. The wily 35-year old veteran is a lock for the Hall of Fame after he retires. In the meantime, he still has plenty of game left, and frankly, he's the primary reason the Suns own one of the best records in the NBA.
Although the Bulls will certainly have their hands full tonight, if they come in focused and determined, delivering a gritty effort at both ends of the floor right from the jump, there's absolutely no reason they can't extend their winning streak to four straight with a signature victory tonight.