Holding onto sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference by mere percentage points, the Suns look to chip away at Utah’s hold on third place as they take on the sub-.500 Chicago Bulls.
While it might seem a perfect game to gain on the Jazz, the Suns stop in the Windy City could prove to be their toughest game on this road trip. The Bulls are winners of four of their last five, albeit against the Nets, Pistons, Rockets and 76ers.
But the more telling statistic is the Bulls’ recent record against the Suns. Since coach Vinny Del Negro took over the Bulls last season, he has not lost to his former club. He remains a perfect 3-0 against the Suns.
Granted, this Bulls team is a little different than the one that rolled the Suns 115-104 in January. The Bulls are without Luol Deng, who added 23 points and six rebounds in the Bulls’ win. Deng is out with a strained right calf. Rookie James Johnson will likely start in his place, despite a foot injury.
Chicago center Joakim Noah returned Sunday for limited minutes as he continues to deal with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Noah contributed 19 points and eight rebounds the last time the Bulls and Suns met, and he could see more minutes in this game.
Brad Miller will likely start at center for the Bulls, which may not sound all that threatening, but Miller is a very physical, tough player and the Suns are without Robin Lopez, who is dealing with a back injury. Jarron Collins’ defensive abilities could provide some help, but Miller is generally a player to take advantage of a mismatch.
More key than who’s out in this game (with the exception of Lopez) are the players who are in, chiefly Derrick Rose. Rose has had Steve Nash’s number in their three meetings. In those three contests, Rose is averaging 25.3 points and 5.0 assists, while shooting a ridiculous 68.6 percent. He went off for 32 points in this season’s first matchup.
In the month of March, despite missing four games with a wrist injury, Rose is averaging 19.6 points and 6.5 assists per game.
Nash has been unable to match Rose, averaging 9.7 points, 7.3 assists and 5.0 turnovers in three meetings. However, probably the greatest contributor to Nash’s struggles against Chicago (just eight points, seven assists in January) has been the defensive efforts of Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich’s scrappy, hustle defense forces Nash to shoot less and rely on his teammates’ scoring more, but more importantly it can prevent Nash from working the offense like the maestro he is.
With any luck, Nash can break out of his funk this time around, but he is dealing again with a sore back. That nagging injury continues to worry me. At 36, is Nash unable to shake an injury like a young player? (Remember when Goran Dragic sprained his ankle? Two games and he was good to go.)
All that said, this Suns team is different than the one who met the Bulls in January as well. The Suns’ turnaround from that frighteningly bad December-January stretch came six days after the Bulls game against Dallas.
Since then, the Suns have gone 21-5 (best in the West in that stretch) and upped their defensive game. They rebound, they limit their turnovers, they beat the teams they should beat. They’re winners of eight of their last 10, including a season-high seven in a row, and clearly they have a solid grasp of the fact that these games — just nine left — are very important.
A win over the Bulls and another win the following night against the Nets, coupled with a Utah loss, would bump the Suns into the third spot in the West. That would be very big for the Suns if they can grab it and hold it, as they would avoid a second-round matchup with the Lakers should both teams advance past the first round.