Chicago Bulls at Phoenix Suns: Game outlook for Friday night

The Chicago Bulls fly to Arizona to take on the Phoenix Suns for the first time this season. After a 31-point loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, Chicago looks to bounce back on Friday.

The Chicago Bulls, now 26-27, have traded wins for losses over the last, well, three months or so.

They currently sit at seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, two games ahead of the ninth-ranked Charlotte Hornets. If they want to secure a playoff spot, their next few games would be the time to do it. After Friday’s game, they head to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves, then face off against the Raptors (who they don’t lose to, weirdly enough) at home and finish the four-game stretch at home against Boston and Phoenix again. They could go 3-1 in the next two weeks, but you can’t count on anything with this team.

Phoenix is the second-worst team in the league according to record, ahead of only the Brooklyn Nets. They’re in the bottom 10 teams in terms of both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency, according to Hollinger’s Team Stats. Despite Eric Bledsoe’s bounce-back year, the young Suns have struggled mightily all year.

Here are a few things to look for as the Suns host the Bulls on Friday night.

Dec 29, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) points while dribbling the basketball up the court in the second half of the NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns won 99-91. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 29, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) points while dribbling the basketball up the court in the second half of the NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns won 99-91. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Keeping up with Phoenix’s pace

The one statistical category that the Suns rank well in is pace, again per Hollinger’s Team Stats. The Suns averaged 101.8 possessions per game, over four more than the Bulls.

Phoenix’s best chance of winning will probably come in outrunning Chicago, pushing the ball in transition and forcing Chicago to play their game. With Eric Bledsoe at the point of attack, and young, spry players around him, like Devin Booker, T.J. Warren and Marquese Chriss, Phoenix has the tools to play get down the court for easy buckets.

The Bulls can do a few things right to limit the Suns ability to score on the break.

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First, which is easier said than done, is making shots. If Phoenix has to take the ball out from out-of-bounds, it gives Chicago a little more time to organize themselves defensively. The Bulls tend to be a little lackadaisical when retreating on defense. (I’m looking at you, Dwyane Wade.)

But, effort and good shots should suppress the Suns’ attack slightly.

The Bulls generally don’t turn the ball over a lot, which helps limit easy breaks for Phoenix. Jimmy Butler will likely play, and Dwyane Wade is day-to-day, according to the Chicago Tribune‘s K.C. Johnson, so Michael Carter-Williams’ minutes (and turnovers) might be limited.

Feb 8, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo (9) talks to teammates during a break in the action against the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Bulls 123-92. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 8, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo (9) talks to teammates during a break in the action against the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Bulls 123-92. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Rajon Rondo and the second unit’s scoring will be important, per usual

A trend started when Rajon Rondo was relieved of his starting point guard duties and placed on the bench unit with Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio. Unlike the starters, this grouping composed some semblance of offensive rhythm. Rondo control’s the offense pretty well, receiving picks from Felicio and finding shooters and cutters in Mirotic and McDermott.

Again, with Dwyane Wade not guaranteed to play, Jimmy Butler will shoulder the weight of shot creation in the first unit. With Defensive Player of the Year candidate P.J. Tucker (according to Jared Dudley) guarding him, it won’t be easy.

That’s why it’s all the more important for the second unit to play well, especially against a Phoenix team whose depth is lacking.

Of course, this comes down to Doug and Niko’s ability to make shots, something they’ve shown inconsistency in doing. Mirotic, despite having the reputation as a shooter, is only making 30 percent of his 3-pointers this season, which is … not great. McDermott’s percentage is better, but he doesn’t take nearly as many deep balls as he should. He’s shown a tendency to come off screens and curl a few feet inside the arc, instead of running to the line and taking the more efficient shot.

As always, any prediction for this team is a crap shoot. The bench has been one of the better scoring groups, so ideally that’ll translate to tonight’s game.

Feb 3, 2017; Sacramento, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson speaks to guard Eric Bledsoe (2) during the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. The Phoenix Suns defeated the Sacramento Kings 105-103. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 3, 2017; Sacramento, CA, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson speaks to guard Eric Bledsoe (2) during the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. The Phoenix Suns defeated the Sacramento Kings 105-103. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

What will it take to slow down Phoenix’s best player?

After being riddled with injuries through his first six seasons in the league, Eric Bledsoe is having his best season yet. Bledsoe’s averaging 21.2 points, 6.1 assists, five rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. With a game similar to Russell Westbrook’s, his speed and athleticism will be difficult to match for the Bulls, so what are some things Chicago can do defensively to prevent Bledsoe from dominating?

As mentioned previously, getting back defensively will be huge against the Suns and Bledsoe in particular. He’s incredible at rebounding the ball himself or receiving an outlet pass and getting down the court in a matter of seconds. If the Bulls fail to hustle, the Suns’ point guard will terrorize them in transition.

Stopping him in the half-court won’t be easy either. The Suns like to set high screens for him, giving him a runway to accelerate towards the basket. Whether his defender goes over or under the screen doesn’t really matter, as Bledsoe moves directly towards the basket. It’ll be up to the big men to really have an impact at the rim. Robin Lopez and Felicio will be better off staying home, forcing Bledsoe to pull up from midrange. If they try to meet him at the free throw line, he’ll blow right past him.

Bledsoe is also adequate at kicking out to shooters, so Bulls’ wing defenders should stay home instead of sagging in. According to math, giving up a layup is better than giving up a three.

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