EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns keep on chugging along while shorthanded, breeze by Bulls

Mar 18, 2022, 10:40 PM

PHOENIX — The Chicago Bulls lost their eighth game in their last 10 Friday night, a 129-102 defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Suns, the only contender in the NBA that has avoided that type of rut every team has at least once a season.

Phoenix did it without half of its six most important players: Chris Paul (right thumb avulsion fracture), Cam Johnson (right quad contusion) and Jae Crowder (left groin soreness).

The long-term absence of Paul put that type of skid back in the realm of possibility for Phoenix, and Johnson’s eighth straight game missed meant anyone else missing time in the rotation would leave the Suns very shorthanded.

And yet, they have now won six of their last seven games and are 9-4 without Paul.

“I told the guys the way we compete every night is something that we don’t take for granted,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “The carryover from the shootaronud. … I just think it’s a really good win.”

Missing pieces of that magnitude will lead to inevitable hitches in areas where the gears normally don’t stop spinning but Phoenix quickly has gotten over that in about a week, continuing its play through its core philosophies while also continuing to find new ways to win.

Enter Friday, a matchup the Suns beat Chicago in at its own game.

The Bulls (41-29) heavily rely on the scoring of their two All-Star guards, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, which tends to not lead to a high degree of ball movement, as Chicago’s assist percentage ranked 25th coming into Friday’s action. With that in mind, it is eighth in offensive rating, because those two guys are phenomenal offensive players.

Phoenix, meanwhile, is one of the best passing teams in the league. But on Friday, it shot 20-of-31 (64.5%) on 2s in the first half and the Suns had just 11 assists on 23 made baskets. That assist percentage below 50% made it only the seventh first half the Suns (57-14) have done that this year.

“We like high passing numbers but we don’t want to pass for pass sake,” Williams said. “We like playing in 0.5 and sometimes when you play in 0.5 your assists can come down because guys can play off the dribble and get into the midrange.”

Chicago did not have the juice offensively to keep up. LaVine has been dealing with an ailing left knee issue for most of the season, something that clearly limited his effectiveness on Friday after he was listed as probable because of it. He shot 1-of-7 and used a 10-for-12 free-throw shooting night to scrap together 12 points.

The Suns led by 13 at the half. The Bulls tried to throw off Phoenix’s rhythm to open the third quarter by playing more aggressive defensive concepts, ones Phoenix quickly dismantled with the proper passing to beat Chicago’s rotations.

Phoenix’s advantage got up to 22 points five minutes into the second half and the Bulls’ poor shooting at 3-point range (7-of-27, 25.9%) plus a lack of a superhuman performance from the MVP candidate DeRozan (19 points) cemented the game’s fate rather early.

The Suns had all five starters in double figures for the fifth time in their last 13 games.

Devin Booker led all scorers with 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting while Deandre Ayton added 20 points and 12 rebounds in 24 minutes.

Ayton continues to show slightly more aggression as a scorer when he gets the ball, a welcoming development to expand his offensive game beyond getting the ball within 8-12 feet and relying on his signature hook shot.

“I like it a lot,” Booker said of Ayton using his faceup game more. “His touch is there. I think he’s been more physical than he’s ever been as of recent.”

Torrey Craig started in place of Crowder for the second straight game and did not miss a shot for the second straight game. He was 5-of-5 from the field for 14 points with nine rebounds, two assists and two steals.

Landry Shamet (14 points) and JaVale McGee (12) provided some good contributions off the bench as well.

Williams played third-string point guard Elfrid Payton over Aaron Holiday in the rotation, a spot Holiday had previously overtaken Payton for the last 10 games. Payton has been rather inconsistent this season while Holiday provided an immediate spark when he arrived at the trade deadline.

The move, according to Williams, was because of Chicago’s size in the backcourt and how well Payton played defensively in the teams’ last matchup in the windy city.

Payton was fine, a +6 in 18 minutes on 0-of-4 shooting. Holiday played in garbage time like a player that did not like being overtaken in the rotation, scoring nine points in six minutes.

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