Chicago Bulls 92, Phoenix Suns 87 – Frigid start to a road trip

There are no excuses for a loss like this. Sure the weather in Chicago is ice cold. But basketball is played inside. Sure the Suns didn’t arrive in Chicago until 12:30 local time. They had plenty of opportunities to warm up in the first forty four minutes. No excuses to be had. For all the outside factors at play, the Suns fell 92-87 to the Chicago Bulls because they did not come to play against one of the toughest teams in the NBA.

Chicago is missing Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer because of injury. Earlier this morning, they traded away their leading scorer Luol Deng to Cleveland. While their depleted roster may have looked ripe for a beatdown to the Suns, Phoenix forgot one important thing: Tom Thibodeau. Tonight Thibs proved himself to be one of the best coaches in the NBA once again. Great coaches aren’t defined by their signature offenses or defenses. They aren’t defined by their personality or the amount they yell. Great coaches are defined by their ability to coach any team in whatever way it takes to win. Good teams have one dominant strategy. Great teams can play multiple strategies. Tonight the Bulls showed a totally different game plan, one that was perfectly suited to catch the Suns slipping.

Chicago ran all night long. They ran off makes. They ran off misses. They set Phoenix back on their heels and didn’t allow the Suns to get set defensively. They cut back door on possession after possession, getting easy baskets and drawing fouls. Thibs gave Taj Gibson the green light in Boozer’s absence. He had a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. He drew lots of contact and got the Channing Frye into early foul trouble. Gibson is another in a long line of power forwards who have had big nights against the Suns.

Defensively, Chicago was tough as always holding the Suns to just 40% shooting from the floor. Though neither team forced many turnovers, the Bulls were clearly the more engaged and active team defensively. For more on the Suns’ loss in Chicago, let’s answer our three preview questions.

Can the Suns take advantage of the wounded Bulls?

No they could not. In fact, it was the Bulls who appeared to take advantage of the Suns who were ice cold and discombobulated all night long. Chicago won every quarter but the fourth. In that fourth, the Suns cut Chicago’s 12-point lead to just four with four minutes to play, setting themselves up to possibly steal a down the stretch. But that was as close as Phoenix would get. After the teams traded fouls and misses, the Bulls used outstanding ball movement to find Kirk Hinrich for a wide open three that extended their lead to seven points with two minutes left. That bucket seemed to break Phoenix’s will and secure the win for Chicago.

It looked as though the Suns and Coach Hornacek were waiting for the shorthanded Bulls to get tired before reeling off a big run that would hand them the lead and put the game away. But the Bulls kept their energy and intensity up, never giving Phoenix an opening. Subsequently, that run never came and the Suns never held the lead in the second half. The Bulls never put this one out of reach really. They just never let their guard down and held on to win a hard fought contest. The Suns will feel like this was a lost opportunity to start their five game road trip off with a win, and that feeling is 100% right.

Can Phoenix keep Chicago off the offensive glass?

Another no. Phoenix gave up 14 offensive rebounds on the night. Chicago was aggressive on the glass, committing multiple frontcourt players to bang the offensive glass and trusting their guards not to give up too many fast break points on the other end. This strategy worked as the Suns ended the night with only 10 transition points, thanks to stellar defense by Kirk Hinrich in transition and incredible effort Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson in the paint. This was not another example of the Suns going small and living with opponents grabbing offensive boards. The Suns had Miles Plumlee, Alex Len, or Frye on the court for all 48 minutes of the game. The Chicago big men simply outworked them for rebounds. This is clearly Phoenix’s biggest weakness as a team, but it may just be something they has to live with to be offensively effective.

Will the Suns’ shooters show up?

Three-for-three on no’s. Gerald Green was hot early, but ended the night 3-for-10 from downtown. Channing Frye was in foul trouble for nearly all of the first half. He came off the bench in the second and got it going a bit, but he was too little too late. The Morris twins were hesitant from the tip, especially from downtown. Neither seemed overly eager to take catch-and-shoot threes in this game, despite the Bulls not closing out on either of them particularly hard. Both Marcus and Markieff have to shoot from deep when their open, if only to make the defense honor their shots and give the rest of their teammates space to operate. The benefit of having two players their size who can shoot from outside is that it draws big defenders out of the paint. But if the twins are hesitating, those big defenders can play a step or two off and be quicker to help when Goran Dragic drives to the hoop. This short circuits the Suns’ entire offense.

Dragic was the only Sun with a good line from downtown (2-of-3). He had a team-high 21 points in the game, but recorded just three assists. P.J. Tucker didn’t get his first look from the corner, normally bread and butter, until there were just 13 seconds left and the game was out of hand. Overall, the Suns were out of sync offensively and never seemed to get it going from downtown.

Chicago’s defense was focused on running the Suns off the three point line, and the Bulls were incredibly successful from start to finish. Phoenix ended just 6-for-23, and while just over 25% from deep isn’t abysmal, it certainly felt as though the Suns were 6-for-100 from downtown because of all the missed chances they had to shift momentum in their favor with a big three.

And 1

  1. Alex Len played for the first time in over a month. He logged six minutes, scored three points, and looked better than when we last saw him. He was aggressive, engaged, and looked as though he has progressed mentally while rehabbing his ankle.
  2. Miles Plumlee was very aggressive on both ends of the floor in this game. He ended the night with 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting, but every one of his shots was a solid post move or dunk. His 22-point performance the other night seems to have emboldened him offensively, which is undoubtedly music to Coach Hornacek’s ears. Now if he can just get his free throw shooting in order, there will be nothing to stop him offensively. Plumlee also played great D on Joakim Noah, holding him to just 5-of-15 from the floor. Noah did dominate the glass however, outrebounding Miles 16-7.

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