PHOENIX — After Tuesday’s practice, shooting guard Jared Dudley made it abundantly clear that the Suns’ 4-4 start to the 2012-13 season is a pretty clear indication of where the team is at right now.
While four of Phoenix’s first eight opponents failed to make the playoffs a season ago, with nine new faces on the Suns’ roster, no game in the early going has been a cakewalk for Alvin Gentry’s squad.
“This team is still learning on the fly,” Dudley said. “All of our different guys are trying to find their different games. We see what’s wrong on film, now it just takes repetition.”
If the first eight games on the slate were part of a feeling out process for Dudley and Co., the next three — played in a span of four days against the Bulls, Lakers and Heat — will likely serve as a barometer as to what kind of identity the Suns want to have as the season progresses.
Wednesday night’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls, might be without former MVP Derrick Rose until at least March, but a Tom Thibodeau-coached team always stays competitive because of its defensive intensity. Although the Bulls (No. 15) are just a hair below the Suns (No. 14) when it comes to offensive efficiency (99.8 points per 100 possessions), defensively Chicago poses a threat that the Suns have not seen to date. Of Phoenix’s first eight opponents, not a single one ranked in the top 5 in defensive efficiency, points allowed and defensive rebound rate. The Bulls, however, are in the top 5 in all three categories.
That might be a troubling sign for the Suns, who have struggled mightily to get off to decent starts of late. In four of their last five games, the Suns have fallen behind by 10 or more points in the first quarter. It’s a trend that will be awfully tough to buck against the Bulls, who have allowed just 20.5 points per game in the first quarter during their four wins this season.
“Every game to game, it changes on what’s the problem,” said Dudley on the team’s recent funk early in games. “That happens with young teams that aren’t really mature, but we are going to have to shore that up.”
Despite their early season issues, Dudley said it’s important for the Suns to grow up over these next four days. Although the teams on the upcoming schedule may appear daunting, the five-year veteran says the Suns should have a mindset that they can come out of the stretch with a positive record.
“It’s a tough stretch coming up,” Dudley said. “These next three you are playing some of the top teams, but the Lakers are struggling, Chicago’s not playing real well and the Heat are playing like one of the best teams. Two out of three are at home, so you try to go two out of three and try to steal one in Los Angeles.”
Three keys for the Phoenix Suns
Control the live turnovers. The Suns are No. 2 in the league in least amount of turnovers (11.8) committed per 100 possessions, but mental mistakes have led to what Alvin Gentry likes to call “live turnovers” during the past few weeks. Live turnovers essentially are turnovers in which the opposing team has the opportunity to get out in the open court. Phoenix, however, is coming off its cleanest game of the year against Denver. The Suns turned the ball over just six times, leading to just nine points for the Nuggets. Against a more-talented Chicago team, protecting the basketball will be vital. To stay in striking distance, the Suns can’t afford to give away possessions.
Limit Luol Deng. When Rose went down with a season-ending knee injury during last April’s playoffs, Deng instantly became the team’s No. 1 offensive threat. Ironically, the former Duke star has averaged more points per game in Chicago’s three losses (24.0) than he has in its four wins (15.0), but if the Suns can find a way to limit his offensive touches, they have a better chance of making the game a physical, grind-it-out contest. The Bulls have talent in the post as well with Joakim Noah (leads the team in rebounds, blocks and steals), Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, so making the game a slug fest in the paint doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, but when the Suns have been burned this season it’s often been by perimeter scorers (J.J. Redick, Gordon Hayward, Ray Allen, Klay Thompson).
Protect home court. That sounds somewhat silly to say in November, but the Suns have been more than welcoming to the Bulls in recent years. Arguably the most agonizing moment in team history was back in June 1993, when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson celebrated their third-straight title on the floor of the Purple Palace following a dramatic Game 6 victory. Although time has certainly passed since then, the Bulls still seem to enjoy the hospitable treatment they receive every time they return to the Valley. In four of their last five trips to Phoenix, the Bulls have claimed victory. The Suns’ only win in that span came back in November 2007.
- Alvin Gentry was unavailable for comment following Tuesday’s practice, as he had to attend a Salute to Service fundraiser at ASU’s Carson Golf Course. Although the head coach didn’t make an announcement regarding center Jermaine O’Neal’s status for Wednesday’s game, several Suns players alluded to the fact he would likely be dressed to face the Bulls. O’Neal has not played since Nov. 4 against the Magic due to a death in the family.
- The Bulls come to town on the heels of their worst defensive effort on the season in a loss to the Boston Celtics. For the first time in 2012-13, Chicago allowed an opponent to score over 101 points. Tom Thibodeau’s squad was without starting guard Kirk Hinrich, who missed the game due to a hip injury. He is listed as a game-time decision for Wednesday night’s contest against the Suns.
- The circus is currently in town at the United Center, forcing the usual tenants out of the building for the next few weeks. Usually, a long trip to the West would be considered a positive for chemistry purposes. For the Bulls, the trip has not gone so successfully of late. Last year’s lockout wiped out the “Circus Trip,” but over the previous three seasons Chicago was just 8-12 during its annual early-season hiatus from the Windy City.