Those are the only words that come to mind in the wake of Phoenix’s 97-81 victory over the Chicago Bulls. This victory removes several of the monkeys who had taken up residence on Phoenix’s back over the last month. The win snapped both a five-game losing streak and a 12-game road losing streak. It was the Suns’ first win in the second night of a back-to-back all season. It was also the Suns’ first road win against a team with a winning record this year. The victory over the Bulls is the 2000th in franchise history, making the Suns the fourth-fastest team to reach that lofty mark.
“Obviously it was a much needed win for us. It is especially good to get it against a quality team,” coach Alvin Gentry told Suns.com. “Yes, this was the 2000th win for the franchise. That’s great, but when you do it against a historical team like the Bulls and all they’ve meant to this league it is really a great achievement.”
This was the best game the Suns have played all season. This is the most resilient the team has looked in a very long time. They matched Chicago’s physicality, and never backed down from it. They got stronger and more potent as the game went along. Once Phoenix took the lead, they pounded the Bulls relentlessly and prevented them from creeping back into the game. Tonight, the Suns reminded everyone in the Valley of the Sun how sweet hard-fought victories are.
“For the first time in a very long time we played and executed well for four quarters,” Gentry said. “We rebounded, shot well and played good defense.”
Aside from getting a much needed ‘W’, the most impressive thing about this game was the Suns’ offense. It’s unmistakably clear that Phoenix is most productive when their offense runs through Luis Scola at the high post. Outside of Goran Dragic, this team does not have a more talented passer than Scola. From the high post, he can shoot a jumper, penetrate into the key, find cutters diving toward the hoop, or hit open guys on the perimeter. He made every one of those plays in this game and ended the night with 22 points on 60 percent shooting to go along with seven rebounds, three assists and only two turnovers. Scola abused Carlos Boozer for 10 points in the first quarter, causing Chicago Coach Tom Thibodeau to put Joakim Noah, a much better defender, on him for the second half. Scola took advantage of Noah’s reticence to leave the paint by hitting several jump shots in the third. Luis made excellent decisions all night long. While he won’t play this flawlessly every night, he’s still the Suns’ best offensive option right now. The more Scola touches the ball, the more versatile and productive Phoenix’s offense will be.
One of the Suns’ biggest problems this year has been initiating their offense too far from the basket. It’s hard to get quality looks when catching the ball 35+ feet from the hoop. In the early part of this game, the Bulls brought Noah to the ball-side block as an extra defender on every single possession. This position made passes into the paint hard with Noah’s length, and put him in great position to help if Brown or Dragic penetrated. The Suns eventually countered this move by initiating their offense with a pass to Scola at the top of the key or either elbow. This prevented Chicago from overloading and made their defense much easier to penetrate. Scola played the dual role of scorer and distributor perfectly, and the Bulls had no answer.
This approach will be even more effective when the Suns get their best outside shooter, Jared Dudley, back from injury. Dudley missed tonight’s game with an injured hand.
While Scola controlled the first and third quarters, it was Michael Beasley in the second period who really broke the game open for Phoenix. Playing extended minutes for the first time in 2013, Beasley exploded for 20 points on an impressive 10-of-14 from the field. He made his first six shots and helped the Suns open up a seven-point halftime lead.
“I was shooting tonight like I really wanted to make it,” Beasley said. “It is the first time in a long time I have felt that way and had the confidence.”
Michael is most effective when he uses his athleticism to create shots rather than catching beyond the arc and heaving jumpers. Tonight he was constantly in motion, making it very difficult for Chicago to defend him. He got open looks in the rhythm of the offense, and capped off his mid-season renaissance with a thunderous right-handed dunk which slammed the door on Chicago for good.
It was quite refreshing to this kind of performance from Beasley, but it was even more impressive to see the Suns effort on defense. Early in the first, Chicago was scoring at will off a screen-down play between Rip Hamilton and Joakim Noah. The first few times the Bulls ran it, both Shannon Brown and Marcin Gortat chased Hamilton, leaving for Noah wide open near the hoop to score easy baskets or draw fouls. When Gortat decided to stay home on Noah, Hamilton started burying jumpers. It looked as though the Suns were going to be exposed defensively all night long.
But then something unexpected happened. Phoenix ratcheted up its intensity. Gortat and Scola switched every screen inside and got physical on the boards. The guards pestered Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson and forced them into sloppy passes. Most importantly, P.J. Tucker blanketed Luol Deng, who managed only 13 points.
When asked about the Suns’ defense, Coach Gentry said, “We tried to make sure that Belinelli and Luol could not get open looks for 3′s. They have been hitting some big shots the last couple games. We wanted to make them play makers, not shooters. We did a good job at that and working the boards. We had a tough loss against them in Phoenix and we didn’t want to have that happen again.”
This is the first time in a long time that the Suns have responded to physical play this way. Their unwillingness to back down frustrated the Bulls who were whistled for four technical fouls in the game. The Suns ended up holding Chicago to 36 percent shooting, including only 2-11 from downtown. While Chicago wasn’t at its best having played New York last night, this is still a well-deserved win for Phoenix, and possibly a sign of things to come.