PHOENIX — Long gone are the days of epic Bulls-Suns battles featuring MJ and Scottie vs. Sir Charles and Thunder Dan.
But Derrick Rose and the Bulls did their best dynasty impression Friday night, overpowering the Suns, 115-104. With the win, former Suns assistant GM and current Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro stayed a perfect 3-0 against his former employer, and the Bulls won consecutive games in Phoenix for the first time since 1989, noteworthy because of the MJ Era.
Trying to get back on their feet after an embarrassing road trip and an unimpressive win over the lowly Nets, the Suns weren’t able to contain second-year point guard Derrick Rose, who scored 32 points to go with five assists. Rose continued to outplay Steve Nash, who had averaged 10.5 points and 7.5 assists in their two meetings last season.
It seemed at times that Rose was shooting at will, even getting wide-open looks. Nash, meanwhile, finished withjust eight points and seven assists. Nash’s third assist, which came late in the first quarter, moved him past Rod Strickland for eighth all-time on the NBA assists leaders list. Nash was frustrated defensively by Kirk Hinrich for much of the game and wasn’t able to work his magic.
“Kirk does a great job on me defensively,” Nash said after the game. “It’s just one of those matchups where he has a good feel for me. He deserves credit. He did really well.”
Rose did have a little extra motivation in this one because, as Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago reported, he planned to donate $1,000 to former presidents Clinton and Bush’s Haiti relief fund for every point he scored in the game ($32,000 to relief; have to applaud Rose for that one).
It wasn’t just Rose that was getting plenty of open shots in the first half. Luol Deng sank a handful of uncontested jumpers to finish with 23 points. It seemed like the Suns were focused on post defense at times, defending Joakim Noah, and at other times, it seemed like they just didn’t play defense, as if they were just thinking about their next offensive possession and forgoing defense completely.
“We just didn’t have an answer for them from a defensive standpoint,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after the game. “You have to give them all the credit; they came in and beat us.”
The Suns’ first half defense was particularly atrocious, as they surrendered 64 points to the Bulls, who shot 57.8 percent in the first half and took a 64-54 lead into the break.
The Suns came out with a different energy in the second half, starting with a 16-7 run to cut the Bulls lead to 71-70. And believe it or not, they started playing defense. Their gritty defense got Noah in foul trouble, with four at the 9:48 mark in the third quarter. Noah missed most of the quarter, and the Suns took advantage, tying the game at 75 with less than six minutes left in the quarter. But the defense seemed to slip again, and the Bulls finished the quarter with an 88-83 lead.
Both teams came out firing in the fourth quarter. It had to be one of the most physical 12 minutes the Suns have played all season. Foul after foul after foul. Both teams had at least one player sprawled across the court at some point. The final nail in the coffin seemed to come with about six minutes to go when Rose put home a monster two-hand pump dunk, absolutely posterizing Goran Dragic and sending US Airways Center into a frenzy.
With the Suns down 99-91 with 4:16 remaining, Channing Frye turned it on (better late than never?). He looked like the Frye of old as he scored five points in under a minute, including a deep ball (his fourth of the game; he finished with 16 points) to cut Chicago’s lead to three at 100-97.
But then, the Bulls kicked it up a notch (which I didn’t think was possible at that point) and surged in the final moments for the win.
“It wasn’t anything that happened other than the fact that they made their shots, they executed down the stretch,” Gentry said. “They were a better team.”
The Suns, on the other hand, didn’t make many of their shots. Finishing with 38.5 percent shooting (compared to Chicago’s 50.6), the Suns shot just 37-of-96 to record their second-worst shooting performance of the season. This Suns team is known to have bad shooting games, but I think the bulk of their shooting troubles tonight came from the Bulls’ stiff defense.
Strangely, it seemed like the Suns just gave up with about two minutes left. But up to that point, the Suns had fought tooth and nail for a ‘W.’ There was nothing the Suns could do, as the Bulls were simply playing fantastic basketball, different than they have all season.
“We had to make an adjustment and try to run off their shots in the second half, but once they got it going, it was tough to turn them off,” said Suns forward Amare Stoudemire.
The Suns really couldn’t turn the Bulls off. They tried zone defense. They tried man defense. Nothing worked and the Bulls did everything right.
What was most baffling was the interior stats at the end of the game. The Suns outrebounded Chicago 49-42, outscored them in the paint 46-34 and scored 20 second-chance points to the Bulls six. What’s confusing about that is that, from watching the game, you’d think Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson (who grabbed eight rebounds apiece) had dominated the boards. The key for the Bulls, despite lesser stats, was the way they used their rebounds.
Essentially, the Suns got a taste of their own medicine as the Bulls used huge boards and outlet passes to spark fast breaks. The Bulls outscored the Suns in transition, 16-10. That might not seem like a lot, but the simple efficiency with which Chicago used their possessions after rebounds was what doomed the Suns.
There weren’t many positives for the Suns in this game, but there were a couple. They showed some serious heart in the final two quarters and gave everything they had on defense. That they could adjust their energy level at halftime should be applauded. Additionally, Amare Stoudemire had another good game, scoring 23 points. And Channing Frye got his confidence back — at least for one one night, but we’ll see what happens.
A negative was the play of Robin Lopez. Maybe everyone got a little too excited about his performances against the Grizzlies and Nets. He simply couldn’t match up with Noah and only finished with nine points and three rebounds.
While the Suns were really looking to keep the momentum going and sweep a three-game homestand, they shouldn’t be hanging their heads after this game. ESPN’s John Hollinger called this game a matchup of the worst good team in the league against the best bad team. And in a scenario like that, it’s anybody’s game. On this particular night, it was Chicago’s.