Keys to the Game: Bulls at Suns (03.18.19)

The Chicago Bulls (19-52) close out a three-games in four days West Coast swing with a stop in Phoenix tonight to take on the Suns (17-54) at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Phoenix hits the hardwood playing its best ball of the season, going 6-4 in their last 10 games (and 5-3 over their last eight), whereas Chicago has lost five straight and seven of their last eight after yesterday's 129-102 crowning by the Kings in Sacramento.

After a back-and-forth opening quarter in which Sacramento held a 24-23 edge after 12 minutes, the Kings quickly found their groove in the second while Chicago couldn't do anything right. When halftime arrived the Kings had outscored the Bulls 32-17 to open a 16-point lead.

Not a whole lot changed afterwards as Sacramento continued to virtually do anything it pleased, scoring 43 in the third and 30 more in the final stanza, outscoring Chicago 73-61 in the second half and laughing all the way to its 34th win of the season — the franchise's highest victory total in more than a decade.

Marvin Bagley III came off the Kings' bench to post a game-high 21 points in just 21 minutes of action, while Zach LaVine led Chicago with 18 points.

On Saturday Phoenix looked to be headed to double-overtime against the New Orleans Pelicans after Suns forward Josh Jackson rose up to knock-down a game-tying 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to play. However, Pels head coach Alvin Gentry committed a major gaffe, immediately calling for a time-out after Jackson's jumper. The problem was Gentry's team did not have a time-out left in its back pocket. A technical foul was immediately called and Suns superstar Devin Booker stepped to the line to hit the go-ahead free throw, as Phoenix then went on to win, 138-136.

The first time the Bulls and Suns got together this season occurred just before Thanksgiving at the United Center, with Chicago winning, 124-116. The Bulls shot a season-best .568 from the field with LaVine leading the way with 29 points. Booker led the Suns with 23 points while currently injured forward TJ Warren added 21 and rookie pivot Deandre Ayton posted 18 points and 12 rebounds.

In order for the Bulls to stop the bleeding and get back on a winning track and sweep the season series this evening against the Suns they're going to have to show up with far more energy and fire than they have recently. Chicago needs to begin to believe in themselves again and play fundamentally sound basketball. They have to unselfishly skip the ball from player-to-player and from side-to-side and look to get everyone involved. They also have to force Phoenix to work hard defensively, getting them to chase in running from spot-to-spot in defending both driving lanes through the paint as well as the perimeter out to the 3-point arc.

Collectively, Chicago also must be willing to play a physical game by showing up with a gritty attitude, especially when it comes to rebounding the ball off the backboards. Both offensively and defensively the Bulls have to step up and take charge, establishing an eagerness and the ability to dictate the pace and flow of the game. They must take full advantage of their team speed and athleticism and relentlessly go on the attack at every opportunity on both ends of the floor.

As a team, the Bulls need to fight to grab every missed shot, and if they can snatch a defensive rebound, immediately take off by flashing to the other end of the floor to post easy scores before Phoenix has time to set up.

Despite winning the NBA lottery last year and being able to take 7'1 center Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick, Phoenix comes in as the NBA's worst rebounding team at 40.5 per night. However, the issue isn't Ayton's fault, as the rookie averages a double-double at 16.2 points and 10.3 rebounds. In fact, so far he's gone for 20+ points and 10+ rebounds 14 times this year, and has 35 double-doubles overall, tops among all rookies. However as good as Ayton has been, Phoenix's offense really centers on high-volume scorer Devin Booker who leads team in scoring (25.5) as well as assists (6.8).

The fourth-year guard out of Kentucky definitely isn't bashful when it comes to firing up shots as Booker also leads Phoenix in attempts (19.2), 3-point attempts (6.4) and free throw attempts (6.8) per night.

Booker enters tonight riding a streak of 12 straight 20+ point outings after putting 40 on the board (along with 13 assists) last time out against New Orleans. It was Booker's second 40-point night during this current 12-game streak, a run in which he's averaging 28.8 points a game.

The Bulls simply cannot allow Booker to get comfortable if they're going to come away with a win. Chicago's wings have to get physical with him and not lose sight of where he is at all times, especially when Booker attempts to free himself at the 3-point arc.

The third offensive threat the Suns have in their arsenal is forward Kelly Oubre Jr., who much like Otto Porter Jr. with the Bulls, has taken advantage of the opportunity to shine since arriving from Washington in trade earlier this season. In three plus seasons with the Wizards, Oubre Jr. averaged just 8.2 points a game. However in 40 outings with Phoenix, he's contributing 16.9 per game. Since recently becoming a starter, Oubre Jr. is scoring 20.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals, with the Suns going 6-6 during this period.

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