The Phoenix Suns, losers of their last four contests after pulling to .500 on the season, will have their star point guard tonight against the Chicago Bulls. Whether or not Steve Nash will be matched up against the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, is still up in the air.
Rose will miss the game to rest his sore left big toe, though the Bulls could hardly be faulted for resting the key to their offense against a Suns team that’s struggling to do much well on the court recently. Phoenix started the season as a seemingly improved defensive team, but 12 games into the season the Suns have regressed significantly, falling back to 22nd in defensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference. Combined with a glacially slow pace (at least relative to what Phoenix is used to) and an offense that’s far removed from the Seven Seconds or Less-era — currently 12th in offensive efficiency — these are a new breed of Suns.
Though much has changed in the Valley, some things remain the same. Phoenix is struggling to keep opponents off the glass; the difference between their offensive rebound rate and their opponents’ is -5.03, meaning the Suns are grabbing very few of their own misses while allowing the opposition to dominate the glass when the Suns are on defense. That’s a recipe for disaster; not securing offensive rebounds is one thing, as it can be a result of a team trying to get back on defense. But allowing teams a second chance at the basket on almost 30 percent of their possessions puts added pressure on the Phoenix defense, and the Suns can’t handle that additional load as they still struggle to learn the intricacies of assistant coach Elston Turner’s defensive system and how the parts fit into a cohesive unit.
Another major issue so far for the Suns is their inability to put the ball in the basket. They’re right at league average on field goal percentage; their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of 3-pointers, is slightly better, owing to the fact that Phoenix is eighth in number of attempts from downtown per game, even with their slow pace. That’s only a positive to a certain extent, however; the Suns are 18th in 3-point shooting percentage. Grant Hill, suffering from a sore right quadriceps tendon that he says is likely related to his offseason knee surgery, is 1-for-14 on the year from deep. Channing Frye, one of the better shooters on the team in years past, has seen his effectiveness from range drop significantly as well; were it not for rookie Markieff Morris hitting on higher than half of his 2.6 3-point attempts per game, these Suns might be in an even worse place than they already are.
And make no mistake, Phoenix is in trouble. They were unable to take advantage of games against Cleveland and New Jersey last week and now find themselves staring down the barrel of a fairly intimidating stretch of schedule. The Suns play their next four games on the road, and their slate for the rest of the month is built on teams likely to make the playoffs at worst. Only a matchup against an improved Toronto Raptors team offers much respite until February rolls around and the schedule lightens up slightly.
As for these Bulls, they continue to hang their hat on their defense, holding opponents to the third lowest effective FG% in the league. They give up a high percentage at the rim and from three, but they do a fantastic job of funneling teams to the middle of the court for less accurate long-range 2s and avoiding sending teams to the line (they have the lowest opponent free throw rate, a measure of free throw attempts per field goal attempt). Chicago is also poised to take advantage of Phoenix’s rebounding woes, as the Bulls lead the league in offensive rebounding rate; they snag almost one-third of their own misses.
If there’s a weakness to these Bulls, other than their offense when Rose is forced to sit, it’s the possibility for fatigue. Chicago is tied with the Lakers for most games played so far at 15, and their starting small forward, Luol Deng, averages almost 40 minutes per game. Deng took on a similar workload last year, but there was, of course, more rest between each game. Coming off a game on Monday in which he played a hair under 39 minutes, the Suns better hope that Deng, a lockdown defender on the perimeter, is feeling the effects of weary legs already.
On the bright side for the Suns, look for Marcin Gortat to have another solid outing. Joakim Noah has struggled this season on both ends of the court, and Carlos Boozer is one of the worst interior defenders in the league, per mySynergySports. Noah’s woes have extended to the point that Omer Asik is getting many of the crunch time minutes at center. Phoenix will need Gortat to be at his thunderous best, even if Rose sits; Chicago’s defense is simply too good at forcing teams out of their comfort zones on the perimeter for the Suns to fall back on their outside shooting and hope that their shots start falling.