Time: 6:00 pm MDT
The Phoenix Suns begin their five-game, week-long road trip tonight with a trip to Chicago to take on a Bulls team that looks like a ruin of its former self. For the second time in just two years, Derrick Rose has injured his knee and is set to miss the rest of this season. Without their superstar point guard, the Bulls have slipped from one of the East’s projected elite to a sub .500 team. Somehow their 14 wins are good enough to hold the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, while out West, the Suns have 20 wins, but sit only seventh in the conference standings. The Bulls may be headed even further south in the standings though. Early this morning, Chicago finalized a trade to send leading scorer Luol Deng to Cleveland in exchange for Andrew Bynum’s contract and three future draft picks. Chicago will reportedly waive Bynum for the purpose of saving salary. Mike Dunleavy will likely fill Deng’s starting role at small forward.
While the suddenly even more depleted Bulls may seem like an easy victory to start the road trip, the Suns are also at less than their full strength. Eric Bledsoe is still ailing from a knee sprain and will be out of the lineup until at least this weekend. The Suns are no strangers to Bledsoe being hurt as he missed a string of six games earlier this year. Phoenix will once again call on Gerald Green to step into a starter’s role and carry some of the scoring load, something he’s been willing and able to do this season. Green is coming off a big game filling in for Bledsoe at home against the Bucks. He scored a team-high 24 points in that game while also grabbing five steals. For a deeper look at how the Suns will fair tonight in frigid Chi-town, let’s ask three big questions.
Can the Suns take advantage of the wounded Bulls?
There’s no doubt that Chicago is at far less than their full strength heading into tonight’s game. But animals are often at their most dangerous when they are wounded. And if there’s any coach in the NBA who can get his guys to play like wounded animals, it’s Tom Thibodeau. It’s almost a certainty that Thibs will have his team playing extra hard tonight, despite Deng’s absence. Deng’s replacement, Dunleavy, is coming off a 20-point performance in the Bulls’ home win over Atlanta on Saturday. Dunleavy and his teammates will be up for tonight’s game in front of their home fans. It’s up to Phoenix Coach Jeff Hornacek to make sure his squad doesn’t over look their weakened opponent.
Can Phoenix keep Chicago off the offensive glass?
If the Suns have a weakness, it’s rebounding. Their fast pace of play and propensity to get out on the fast break leads Coach Hornacek to go with a small lineup for long stretches of games. While these small lineups still compete on the defensive end, they tend to get crushed on the offensive glass. The Bulls are a Top 10 offensive rebounding team by both the per-game and Hollinger stats. The Suns on the other hand are bottom 5 in the NBA in offensive rebounds allowed. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are both beasts on the offensive boards. Keeping them from extending possessions and getting easy put backs will need to be a point of emphasis for the Suns if they hope to keep Chicago from hanging around in this game.
Will the Suns’ shooters show up?
Lately, Phoenix has been either hot or cold from deep. The Bulls are 26th in opponent 3-pt% (.375), but teams are taking on 17.8 threes per game against them. The Suns average 26.1 attempts from downtown per game. Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker, and Channing Frye will all be in the starting lineup tonight and, and each of them is capable of making the Bulls pay from deep. Chicago will be using a brand new starting lineup tonight, possibly making their defensive rotations a step slow. With a focus on ball movement, the Suns should be able to find plenty of open looks from beyond the arc and put Chicago on its heels.