Preview: Bulls (18-22) at Suns (25-18)


Bulls 115, Suns 104

Bulls

Suns

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns have gotten contributions all year from West All-Star starters Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

The rest of the rotation players have all spent time as key cogs during some games and utter flops during other games.

My focus will continue to be on guys 3-10 in the rotation when the Bulls visit the Suns in a rematch of the ’93 Finals.

We have yet to see if the changes Gentry has made to the starting lineup — substituting in Robin Lopez and Leandro Barbosa for Channing Frye and Jason Richardson — have really made an impact. The Suns played well in a loss on the road to a tough Memphis team in the first game with the new lineup and then pulled away from New Jersey on Wednesday, a game that only would have meant something if they lost it.

Gentry has said the lineup changes are not something “that we’re permanently married to,” but he plans to test it out for at least the next couple games. And how nice for LB and Lopez to be opposing a Bulls team that’s 4-15 on the road (ranking 28th offensive efficiency but 8th on defense) and then a 12-28 Warriors squad.

LB has thus far failed to become the explosive scorer from yesteryear as a starter, scoring 14 and nine in his past two contests, including 3-for-14 shooting from distance (21.4 percent). J-Rich, meanwhile, still played more minutes on Wednesday (28-20) and looked right at home coming off the bench with 26 points.

As the Z Man has written in comments pretty much all season, LB plays really well with Nash, so Gentry’s hope is that getting the majority of his time with Nash should really jumpstart him. While everybody is better playing with Nash, J-Rich is more adept at taking on the scoring burden when Nash sits.

If this combination ends up being better for both players, I hope J-Rich puts his ego aside and realizes Gentry is doing this to put his team in the best position to win.

As for the center switch, both Lopez and Frye play much better with Nash, but what center doesn’t? Lopez has turned into a key cog in the last three games. Seriously, if he keeps playing like this, we may be watching that missing athletic defensive center piece that the Suns have craved for so long develop before our eyes.

Lopez will be a major key in keeping Joakim Noah off the boards, which is easier said than done with Noah trailing only Dwight Howard in rebounding (12.4 per game). He’s also a big reason the Bulls lead the NBA in total rebounds per game, and we all know how the Suns struggle in that department.

As for Frye, it’s mind boggling how he has become irrelevant so quickly. He’s shooting 20.6 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three over his past six games (3-for-14). Three used to be a good half for Frye from distance.

Channing has now gone three straight games without a long ball, leaving him stuck on 98 for the season, and he’s averaged 4.1 ppg during the stretch. This from a player who had scored in double figures in 12 of his previous 14, during which time he averaged 15.0 ppg.

Most alarming is he seems to have suddenly lost his confidence. Although teams certainly are forcing him to put the ball on the floor, he’s also passing up open shots that he drained earlier in the season. Gentry can live with a slump, but he doesn’t want to see Frye become hesitant when he’s open.

“We’ve told him, ‘If you have a shot take it,” Gentry said. “If they’re good shots in this offense you have to take them because if you don’t take them then it hurts the flow of the game. He has to know that he has the right to take those shots.”

As the Suns continue to figure themselves out and work their way out of this slump, Gentry understands that the West standings will fluctuate every week and at times every day. His sixth-place Suns are both a game out of fourth and a game ahead of ninth as well as being just a couple games ahead of 11th.

“All these games against teams that are struggling, we’ve got to come out and win because we want to get a little separation and be on top of the pack when it comes down to playoff time,” Richardson said.

Plus if the Suns don’t start a winning streak during this stretch, when are they going to do it?