The beginning had all the makings of a déjà vu.
The Suns, like they appeared in their first game of the season against the Dallas Mavericks, seemed disinterested on defense and emotionally affected by missing open shots on offense Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls. Quickly, they found themselves in a 17-point hole.
But unlike that season-opener, Phoenix would fight back to take the lead briefly on three separate occasions before getting burned by Jimmy Butler’s 32 points and hot shooting late in a 103-97 Chicago victory.
And so the web of confusion continues to spin itself.
On one hand, Phoenix dove on the floor and pounded the offensive glass to fight back.
On the other hand, the Suns found the same fate.
The Twitter-sphere of both Suns and Bulls fans read similarly throughout the game. Chicago fans appeared confused about a win, which moved first-year coach Fred Hoiberg’s team to 8-3 on the year and with a tiebreaker against the Cavaliers put them ahead of Cleveland for first in the Eastern Conference standings. Many might not be able to explain why the Bulls are here.
This Bulls team is extremely bizarre and 8-3 and they’ll probably somehow beat the Warriors for no reason
— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) November 19, 2015
The Bulls continue to confound me. — Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) November 19, 2015
Phoenix’s followers likewise couldn’t explain why the Suns could never get over the hump despite showing promising signs, both in terms of an improved effort and with their execution.
“They made tough shots,” forward P.J. Tucker said of the Bulls. “They got it going early, the basket gets big late in games when they’re seeing it go in.”
Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler certainly did. His backcut in the first few minutes of the game had Tucker screaming in frustration before Nikola Mirotic had even connected his alley to the oop. It was one of several breakdowns early for Phoenix, but that was only part of getting Butler cranked up enough to hit several contested shots late that put Phoenix away.
Bulls and Suns fans may not get these teams. But at a second look, maybe it’s just that two well-coached teams learning their identities played a game of several swings.
“Jimmy’s tough. I think it’s more of the offense,” Tucker said, “the way they move the ball, the way their bigs pass they ball, the minute you fall asleep, they’re getting open shots, layups.”
The nod to Hoiberg shouldn’t go unnoticed. No longer is this Tom Thibodeau’s plodding offensive team.
Chicago, with or without point guard Derrick Rose, who missed the game with a twisted ankle, remains a well-conditioned defensive team, ranking seventh in the league in defensive efficiency.
It’s Hoiberg’s offense that put even effort-filled Suns defensive possessions in jeopardy. On the other side of things, Phoenix showed pluckiness coming back, exemplified on a single possession that included six Suns offensive rebounds before a score.
The Suns were also sparked by savvy coaching moves from Jeff Hornacek, who refused to accept bad shooting like in the opener and more quickly ditched Archie Goodwin and Jon Leuer with a floor-spacing unit that included Devin Booker and Mirza Teletovic.
Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attack that in the first half sometimes drew three defenders onto an attacking point guard broke down the Chicago defense once Teletovic and Booker knocked down open shots. They and a couple Ronnie Price steals that led to buckets — two of those a game from Price have become almost obligatory at this point — helped Phoenix get back into it. Maybe the Bulls and Suns are more similar than many people would believe.
A young Phoenix team is still trying to find consistent execution and effort, not to mention discovering how it can score when its key scorers, who are streaky jump shooters, don’t have it going.
Chicago, meanwhile, might benefit by allowing the distraction of Rose’s health to take a backseat to the rise of Butler.
“He was phenomenal, he just took the game over, offense, defense,” Hoiberg said of Butler. “He was guarding their best player, I tried to take him out, he wouldn’t let me. He did it all for us in that fourth quarter. It was almost like his energy level went up as the game went on in that fourth quarter. That’s what big time performers do, they step up when you need it most.”
Without Rose, the Bulls held constant observers of the Suns from watching their team square off with a known opponent. This, after Phoenix recently missed out on playing the Kings with DeMarcus Cousins, the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, and the Clippers with Chris Paul. But if Butler’s the Bulls’ best player, maybe we learned more about the Suns than we think.
Suns rookie Devin Booker may have earned himself some more playing time with two triples — one by giving a driving Eric Bledsoe a passing lane to find him and another on a pretty trailing play. But Booker also committed two fouls on Butler jump shots. Apparently, the rook was also committing to a dangerous smack-talking game.
Butler on Suns rookie Booker: “He was talking trash to me; crazy. I was like, ‘Excuse me.’ Sometimes I think you should just play.” — Sam Smith (@SamSmithHoops) November 19, 2015
STRAIGHT FROM THE HUSTLE DEPARTMENT
Here’s a fun snapshot of a single offensive possession for Phoenix (and a Jeff Hornacek technical seconds later is not even included!).
- Trade for Bridges made Suns GM feel like ‘Grinch’; McDonough talks cost
- Suns’ McDonough: Ayton is one of the top five prospects GM has ever scouted
- Short and sweet: The month Ayton, Bagley spent together at Hillcrest
- Suns hit it out of the park and other winners from 2018 NBA Draft
- McDonough: With four-player 2018 NBA Draft class, Suns addressed needs