Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Suns (11.21.18)

Tonight the Bulls (4-13) are back home to take on the Phoenix Suns (3-13) at the United Center in the first of two contests slated between the teams this season. Chicago hopes to get back on the right track after dropping its last four while Phoenix arrives in town in the middle of a four-game Eastern Conference swing having lost their last two, including a hard-fought 119-114 setback in Philadelphia on Monday.

A week ago this evening the Suns scored a surprising 116-96 victory over the San Antonio Spurs to snap a four-game losing streak. However, they came out flat the next time they hit the hardwood in falling to OKC 110-100 Saturday, and then in Philly the other night. In the Thunder game the Suns were out-rebounded 62-42, and it didn't get any better against the 76ers, as Philly dominated the glass 53-31.

Despite having the NBA Draft's No. 1 overall pick in 7'1” center Deandre Ayton, Phoenix enters tonight 29th in the league in overall rebounding, collecting a mere 39.9 missed shots a night. Sadly, Chicago has been just slightly better, ranking 26th with an average of 41.5 a game. Thus if the Bulls are going to come out on top this evening it would be smart to take advantage of an opportunity to control of the glass and light a fire under their feet offensively by relentlessly grabbing the ball off the window and running it up the floor as often as possible to deny the Suns time to set up defensively.

Phoenix's problem on the boards isn't Ayton's fault, as the rookie is averaging a double-double with 16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. The truth is nobody other than Ayton seems willing to put much effort into glass work, as the next best rebounder is veteran forward Trevor Ariza at 5.6 per night.

For the most part the Suns offensive attack centers on high-volume scorer Devin Booker who leads team with an average of 23.8 points as well as a team-high 7.4 assists a game. The fourth-year guard isn't bashful when it comes to firing up shots from all over the floor as he also leads Phoenix in overall attempts (19), 3-point attempts (8.1) and free throw attempts (5.6) per night. In just 13 games Booker has already notched 38, 37 and 35 points. Against the Sixers he tickled the twine for 37 points and handed out eight assists while firing 15 threes and 28 shots in total. Defensively the Bulls have to respect Booker's abilities by keeping close tabs on him at all times. They simply cannot allow him to find a comfort zone and open looks at the hoop. Chicago's wings need to get physical and constantly run Booker off the arc, forcing him to take hotly-contested, low-percentage shots.

Ayton is another scoring threat, but he'll do his damage down low under the basket. Chicago's bigs will need to surround Ayton and not give him room to breathe or an opportunity to take control of the paint. Every time Ayton touches the ball down in the post Chicago needs to let him know they're right behind him, making it clear they will not be handing out free passes near the bucket.

The third offensive threat the Suns have is veteran forward TJ Warren, who last season posted a career-best 19.6 points a game while shooting just under 50-percent (.498) from the field. Warren's scoring average is down slightly this season (17.9), but like every good player in the league, he's become a legitimate threat from the arc as he's taking nearly four 3s a game and connecting on 46.6 percent of them. The 6'8” former NC State All-American is one of the NBA's most underrated players. There isn't a team in the league that wouldn't want this guy on their roster. Over his last six games Warren is producing 24.3 points while shooting .551 (54-of-98) from the field and .468 (15-of-32) from long distance.

Besides taking command of the backboards at both ends of the floor, and keeping tabs on Booker, Ayton and Warren, the Bulls also need to bring joy back into their game. Too often of late Chicago has gotten off to fast and impressive starts only lose their way after a couple of shots fail to fall and the offense morphs into a jump shooting contest. The Bulls are at their best when they play with passion and aggression. The ball has to freely bounce from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Everyone has to be willing to sacrifice personal stats for the good of the team. They have to set each other up for open looks at the rim, be they outside the arc or taking the action directly to the cup.

All-in-all, the Bulls have to come in with the mindset of outworking their opponents. Everyone needs to be focused and bring energy.

As shorthanded as they are due to injuries to key players, the Bulls cannot afford to hang their head and feel sorry for themselves. On the contrary, they must battle in every way possible and send a message to opponents that when you play the Chicago Bulls nothing comes easy.

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