Coming into the eight-game home stretch, the Phoenix Suns were 22-18, having dropped back-to-back games against the Spurs and Grizzlies; they had gone just 4-4 over their last eight games.
It wasn’t quite time to panic, but something needed to change, especially with games against the Cavaliers (with LeBron), Trail Blazers, Rockets, Clippers, Wizards and Bulls coming up in the next two-and-a-half weeks, followed by three more tough outings against the Warriors, Grizzlies and Trail Blazers (again).
It seemed like 5-5 would be a reasonable result for the Suns, with all but two of the next 10 contests coming against teams currently in playoff position. However, the Suns jumped out to a quick 4-0 start, which shook up the expectations a little bit, and I’m not only referring to the expectations about the 10-game stand. All of sudden, it started to become real:
Phoenix could really make the playoffs over Oklahoma City.
Now the pressure falls on the Suns to finish out the homestand with a victory, especially considering that the Thunder’s next game is on the road at Memphis. The Grizzlies should be considered the favorite to win that game, as they are 20-5 at home this year, while the Thunder are 10-16 on the road, having dropped their last three outings away from home, to Atlanta, Cleveland and New York.
At this point in the year, with less than half of the season remaining, every game is especially huge for both the Suns and the Thunder, and some favorable results over the next few days could really go a long way in providing the Suns with a little more breathing room as the eighth seed in the West.
Now as far as the game is concerned, Chicago has been one of the more baffling teams this year. The Bulls come into this game off of an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, which followed an overtime victory over the team with the Western Conference’s best record: The Golden State Warriors. This isn’t just a recent trend either.
Chicago has struggled against some of the NBA’s worst teams, losing games to Boston, Brooklyn, Denver, Indiana, Miami, Orlando, Sacramento and Utah, but oddly enough, they’ve also fared pretty well against some of the league’s elite.
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The Bulls have managed to knock off the Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Raptors, Warriors and Wizards all on the road, while picking up some nice home wins against Houston, Portland, San Antonio and Toronto. Something doesn’t add up.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Bulls’ inconsistency is the play of Joakim Noah, who was among the best players on the team coming into the year. The former Florida standout has been having one of the worst seasons of his career. At the moment, he sits at eighth on the team in scoring, while posting his lowest point and rebound totals since the 2008-2009 season. Additionally, Noah is shooting a career worst 44.6% from the field, while posting a sub-15 player efficiency rating for the first time in his career.
While some of his struggles are due to injury, Noah has really been off to a miserable 2014-2015 campaign, although as of late, he’s put up a couple of solid outings. However, it doesn’t change the fact that by the standards he set last year, Noah has been very below average, and people have certainly started to notice.
Jimmy Butler is another player who appeared to be breaking out for the Bulls, and he was even being thrown in the early MVP discussion, while averaging over 21.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game, but like Noah, the man known as “Jimmy Buckets” has cooled off.
Since the New Year, Butler has managed just 16.3 points per game (on an average of 13.0 shot attempts), and he’s shot just 40.2% from the field and 35.7% from three-point range. This Bulls team is vulnerable, and the Suns will need to take full advantage, especially with the playoffs as the goal.
Last year, the Bulls won both of their games against the Suns, as Noah posted a combined 28 points, 30 rebounds and 8 assists in the two games, so it’ll be important for the Suns to limit him, although as I mentioned, he doesn’t seem like nearly the same player this time around. In the two meetings between the teams last year, the Phoenix Suns really struggled to shoot from the outside, making just 14-of-51 (27.5%) three-point attempts, and turnovers were an issue.
Phoenix committed nearly 11.5 percent more turnovers than they averaged on the season, with 33 between the two games, and the team looked plain bad on offense, averaging just 89.5 points per game. For comparison, the worst team in the NBA in scoring that year averaged 93.7 points per game, and this year, only one team in the NBA averages less than 90 points per game: The Philadelphia 76ers.
Yes, those Philadelphia 76ers:
Regardless, the point remains: 89.5 points per game isn’t just bad. It’s unacceptable.
This season the Suns are 1-2 when they score 90 or fewer points; last season the team was 2-4; the year before that the team was 2-21. Simply put: You can’t win without putting the ball in the hoop, although scoring hasn’t really been a problem for the Suns as of late.
Over the stretch that has seen the Phoenix Suns win 15 of their last 21 games, the team has cracked the 100-point mark 19 times, while reaching the 110-point mark on 13 separate occasions. Over that period, Markieff Morris and Eric Bledsoe have both posted career highs in scoring, with 35 and 33 points respectively.
Interestingly enough, some Vegas sports books have the Bulls as slight favorite going into the game, but ultimately, this should be one where the Suns look back and are kicking themselves, if they are unable to get the job done, especially considering that the Bulls are on the second game of a road back-to-back, with the first game finishing up in overtime last night in Los Angeles.