Keys to the Game: Bulls at Suns (03.31.21)

In the third of a four-game Western Conference road swing, the Chicago Bulls visit the Valley of the Sun this evening to take on the Phoenix Suns for the second and final time this season. In the first encounter played at the United Center, Suns All-Star Devin Booker and starting center Deandre Ayton each scored 22 points to help rally Phoenix from a seven-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to beat Chicago, 106-97. Fellow Suns All-Star Chris Paul added 14 points, 15 assists and six rebounds, while Chicago area native Frank Kaminsky contributed 15 points off the bench to help push the Suns over the top. Zach LaVine led the Bulls' charge with 24 points.

As mentioned, Phoenix wiped out an 87-80 deficit with a 9-0 run early in the fourth, then took the lead for good with five minutes to play on a short jumper from Paul. That ignited a 10-0 spurt that included 3s from Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson.

Ayton was strong at both ends of the floor throughout the night, as the Suns outscored Chicago 66-44 in the paint.

Besides LaVine's heroics, Coby White also added 19 points for the Bulls, while Thaddeus Young produced a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

The Bulls come into tonight looking to snap a four-game losing streak after falling to Golden State on Monday, 116-102. Not only was it Chicago's fourth straight loss but it was also the team's sixth loss in its last seven games.

Against Golden State, six Bulls scored in double digits as the team enjoyed a terrific shooting night, connecting on 44-of-84 (.524) from the floor, and also doled out 33 assists, but way too many defensive breakdowns covering the 3-point arc (Golden State shot 16-of-38 / .421% from deep) as well as former MVP Steph Curry (32 points), coupled with 19 Chicago turnovers denied the Bulls any shot of coming out on top.

It also didn't help that Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine had an off night (12 points) trying to play through a sprained right ankle that has been bothering him for most of the past week. LaVine's status for tonight is up in the air as of this writing, as is key veteran role player, Garrett Temple, who recently returned to the hardwood after missing time with a sprained ankle of his own, only to be plagued with a sore hamstring suffered against the ‘Dubs in less than three minutes of action the other night.

A third key member of the Bulls, Coby White, is also trying to heal up, as he was forced to miss the first game of his career Monday at Golden State due to a neck injury. Like LaVine, White's status for tonight is questionable at best. Having to go up against the Suns, who sport the NBA's second-best record (32-14) on the road without three key players would be a pretty tall task for any team, let alone one that added five new players to the roster less than a week ago.

However, all is not doom and gloom for the Bulls as recent addition, Nikola Vučević, has been as good as advertised. The 6'11 pivotman led Chicago with 21 points, hitting nine of 13 shots, although he did miss all four of his three-point attempts, against the Warriors. Vučević also added nine rebounds and six assists, while Lauri Markkanen came off the bench for the first time this year and second of his career, to score 13 points and grab six rebounds.

As for the Phoenix Suns, they continue to strengthen their grasp on the second seed in the West, as they're on a three-game unbeaten streak and will be gunning for their seventh win in their last eight matchups this evening.

Phoenix has one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. The likes of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton form the forefront of their attack, but the Suns can also rely on other pieces to get them over the hump most nights. Mikal Bridges is the best example, as the two-way wing chips in regularly with double-digit scores and is very capable of blanketing the opposition's best player.

Veteran forward Jae Crowder has also proven quite valuable for Phoenix this season. His aggressive nature as a player and overall leadership has helped to bind the team together.

Even though the Suns have plenty of options, Devin Booker, when firing on all cylinders, is their best player. Booker struggled at the start of the season but found his stride after returning from injury in February. The two-time All-Star comes into tonight averaging 25 points, 4.5 assists and 4.1 rebounds. As mentioned earlier, he led the Suns in scoring with 22 points the last time they faced the Bulls in Chicago.

In order for the Bulls offense to get into gear the ball must generously jump from player-to-player. Persistent sharing typically makes defenses rush and often overreact and collapse. When the ball consistently skips between players, driving lanes open for attackers to take the ball to the hoop for easy scores and draws contact and fouls from the opposition for extra trips to the free throw line. Continual sharing also allows shooters stationed around the three-point arc to gain clean looks at the rim for uncontested or lightly contested jumpers.

The biggest thing Chicago must avoid is slowing down their attack and allowing the offense to transform into an isolation style where one player attempts to take his defender one-on-one as everyone else stands around and watches. Selfless ball movement with continuous player movement will produce an efficient and potent offensive charge.

Another major factor of its offensive attack the Bulls must get better at is turnovers. Winning teams don't constantly lose the ball whenever an opponent ups the pressure. So far this season Chicago has been one of the NBA's worst turnover teams. That simply has to stop.

As for defense, shutting down the 3-point arc, especially when Booker has the ball in his hands and he's hunting shots, is an absolute must. Also, the Bulls have to aggressively toughen up down in the paint and make their presence felt on the boards, especially against Ayton this evening. Ayton has dominated Chicago in every way the last couple of times the teams have squared off. Hopefully, the addition of Vučević manning the middle will give Ayton some pause and a taste of frustration.

From here on out, every contest must be treated as a playoff game. Chicago's upcoming schedule is daunting to say the least, for including tonight, seven of the next eight are on the road against a number of the league's best. After tonight the Bulls head to Utah to take on the Jazz who own the top won-loss record in the league, then Chicago goes home for just one game to face the Brooklyn Nets who sit atop the Eastern Conference for a Sunday matinee before hitting the road for five more key outings.