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Pre-game notes: Bulls at Suns

PHOENIX — Suns point guard Steve Nash will look to pass Rod Strickland tonight to take hold of eighth place on the NBA all-time assists list. With 7,985 career assists, Nash needs just three tonight to pass Strickland.

Next on the list would be Gary Payton with 8,966 assists, nearly a thousand ahead of Nash. Nash also needs just 15 assists to became only the eighth player in NBA history to reach the 8,000 assist mark.

Tonight’s game features a top flight point guard duel with Nash battling second-year Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose.

Rose’s 19.1 points per game ranks second among Eastern Conference point guards  (fourth in the league), behind only suspended Washington Wizard Gilbert Arenas. Meanwhile, Nash’s 18.6 ppg ranks fourth among Western Conference point guards (sixth in the league).

Thus far in the Rose vs. Nash series, Rose has the edge. In the Bulls’ sweep of the Suns last season (the first since the 1996-97 season), Rose averaged 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists. In the same two games, Nash averaged 10.5 points per game and 7.5 assists.

Before the game, Bulls head coach and former Suns assistant GM Vinny Del Negro had complimentary words for Nash, and spoke to Rose’s progress since last season.

On Nash

“Steve is as good as there is with the basketball. He’s very creative with either hand, probably even better with the left. If you aren’t smart on the pick and roll, he’s gonna make you pay because he’s such an excellent shooter. You can’t foul him because he doesn’t miss free throws. That’s why he’s a two-time MVP and a starter on the All-Star team. He knows how to play and he works at it. I know how hard he works.”

On Rose and defending Nash

“Derrick’s improving defensively, and he’ll continue to improve. It’s his second year, and he’s got to learn some more nuances of the game. Kirk will be on Nash, Derrick will be on Nash. We’ll mix it up and try to control [Nash] as best we can in terms of his initial thrust up the court. They get the ball up fast. That’s why they lead the league in points.”

A big test for Lopez

Robin Lopez remains in the starting lineup tonight (as does Leandro Barbosa) after setting new career highs in scoring in the last two games. In those two games, Lopez averaged 19.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

Before the contest, Del Negro and Suns head coach Alvin Gentry spoke about the improved play of Lopez and the matchup with Chicago’s rebounding standout Joakin Noah.

Vinny Del Negro on Lopez’s move to the starting lineup

“He’s big. You have to put a body on him. He’s been playing well as of late. He’s been productive for them. Lopez causes problems just with his size and as he plays more, he’ll improve.”

On Lopez’s passionate play and how he’ll advise Noah to guard him

“[Joakim]‘s got to be physical and box him out. He’s got to run the court and put pressure on him and screen and roll and dive — just be aggressive at both ends of the court.”

Alvin Gentry on the Noah-Lopez matchup

“It’s just another matchup. Obviously Noah’s having a great year and playing well. I think the way he’s helped the Bulls is he’s been real active on the boards. The thing is [Noah] is very athletic. He probably runs as well as any big guy in the NBA. Transition defense with him is a big key. He gets a lot of his points just because he outruns a lot of big guys in the league. He’s made a huge jump in productivity from last year to this year.”

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