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Phoenix Suns preparing for another capable but inferior East foe in Bulls

Head Coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns instructs his team during the fourth quarter of an NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center on February 19, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

On TNT’s NBA Postgame Show Tuesday, analyst Candace Parker made a great point about the Brooklyn Nets and how they show up against great teams.

The Nets (21-12) as of Thursday are 11-1 against teams above. 500.

“They’ve always played well when the lights are on and that’s a team that usually can get their act together,” she said. “When you’re not beating teams you’re supposed to, that’s a fix. If you can’t beat teams that are better than you, then there’s not always an answer for that.”

This, of course, relates to the Phoenix Suns (20-11). They’ve done well against some of the league’s best, as the Suns are 6-4 in those games. But five of their remaining seven losses after that have come against teams in the bottom third of the league.

The Suns are in the process of still figuring out that “fix” that Parker is talking about. More specifically, they’re blowing leads against inferior competition.

Wednesday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets was the latest example, in the fourth game this year the Suns have lost after being up by at least 17 points.

Veteran Suns forward Jae Crowder knows a thing or two about winning in the NBA. The only teams Crowder has been on that finished below .500 were two years when he was traded mid-season. Most of his teams have win totals in the high 40s and low 50s.

Crowder called Wednesday’s defeat “immature” and said on Thursday the Suns have to stay consistent with winning habits in order to get that “fix.”

“It sounds simple, but when you’re winning and you’re winning at a high level, sometimes it tends to be like you feel you can shortcut things in a sense,” he said. “And you just can’t. You just gotta continue to do the same thing each and every day and whatever got you to playing well or whatever got you to getting that lead in that game, you gotta find a way to continue to do the same thing and continue to grind it out … I felt like last night, we got up to a 17-point lead and we just had slippage.

“I just feel like we just started playing a totally different brand of basketball on both ends of the court which allowed the other team to get in the game.”

Crowder said the right conversations are taking place between the team.

“Coach did a good job today of giving it to us straightforward … it’s definitely getting talked about,” he said.

The Hornets, now 15-16 in the Eastern Conference, will be followed on the Suns’ schedule by the Chicago Bulls on Friday, also a 15-16 East team.

The Suns’ below-average defensive effort on Wednesday let Hornets guards LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk get cozy and they responded by swinging the game at different moments. The Bulls have better backcourt talent that can punish that even more.

They’re led by All-Star Zach LaVine, who has exploded in his seventh season to 28.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game on insane 52/44/87 shooting splits.

The Bulls have a star. The issue is they’ve got good, capable supporting pieces while also having skilled and promising young players mixed together around LaVine.

The leading trio in minutes for Chicago is LaVine, second-year guard Coby White and rookie Patrick Williams. It has a -10.2 net rating in 510 minutes. But when LaVine is with 11-year pro Garrett Temple and the ever-reliable Thaddeus Young, the Bulls in 319 minutes have outscored teams by 12.0 per 100 possessions. A hat tip to TrueHoop’s Tom Haberstroh for that find, and LaVine trios with savvy combo guard Tomas Satoransky also perform well.

This is relevant for Friday because the Bulls are not just a streaky young team that can get hot. They’ve got a clear No. 1 guy, solid role players and are generally decent across the board.

Chicago ranks 14th in offensive rating and 20th in defensive rating. Its shooting percentages for FG%, 3P% and FT% are all top-10, and while they don’t move the ball terrifically, the Bulls are 13th in assist percentage, a number they’ll take without a natural point guard.

That issue, though, rears its head on one of the few blemishes on their statistical profile. They’re 28th in turnover percentage and 29th in opposing points off turnovers.

To simplify all those rankings, the Suns can tighten up on defense and really make the Bulls pay for it, or a capable offensive team will capitalize on having a certain comfort level.

Along those lines, Williams smartly pointed out that you can’t really plan for a team to turn the ball over. Not really the best mindset, obviously.

“I think you have to plan for the efficiency … We’re planning for their best and that’s the respect level that you have to have for a team like this,” he said Thursday.

Williams shouted out how Chicago uses its bigs around the elbow and top of the key as connectors:

And also the speed its guards play with through good movement:

“Those guys are pretty good in that environment,” Williams said.

There is a lot that goes into making that jump from a good team to a great one and one of the first steps for the Suns is taking care of business in these types of matchups.

As they near the All-Star break, Crowder is optimistic with the discussions being held and that the team knows what needs to be fixed.

“The 11 losses we got, seven of them are to under .500 teams,” Crowder said. “I just feel like that’s a maturity thing. That’s just us taking care of business, knowing we have an opponent down and standing on them and completing the task.

“I just feel like this comes with building that awareness, building that maturity that we need to get to and we’re not there yet.”


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