Recent history of Bulls-Suns has featured the physical Bulls beating the high-flying Suns into submission with stifling defense. In last season's sweep, the Bulls held the Suns to 87 and 92 points, well below their season average of 105.2PPG.
Late last month, the Suns turned the tables on the Bulls, winning 99-93 in a game that seems so, so long ago given all the events which have transpired between then and now.
Since then, the Suns slumped into the All-Star break, last season's All-NBA guard Goran Dragic announced he wouldn't re-sign after the season, then an ugly war of words broke out between Dragic and the Suns front office as Dragic was dealt to the Heat for future draft choices.
The end result is that the current Suns roster is minus Dragic, his brother Zoran Dragic, Tyler Ennis, Isaiah Thomas and Miles Plumlee, and plus Brandon Knight, Marcus Thornton and Earl Barron (and maybe Danny Granger).
As the full roster, new look Suns haven't played together yet, tonight should be our first chance to see how Knight and Bledsoe fit together, the key to the Suns' Thursday dealing. Knight was the blue chip of the day, according to Suns GM Ryan McDonough. As per AZCentral's Paul Coro, Knight will start next to Bledsoe tonight.
Just as the Suns have now abandoned their PG-heavy roster, the Bulls have abandoned their imbalance of dominant defense coupled with lackluster offense. Last season's poor and plodding Bulls offense (28th in O-Rating and 29th in pace) has given way to this season's 8th in O-Rating and 20th in pace.
The downside of the additions of Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks, and return of Derrick Rose from injury is the decline of the Bulls once vaunted D from 2nd to 13th. Overall, they seem to have a better roster with an improved chance to win the East (they sit at #3 in the Eastern Conference standings right now), but are giving up over 7 PPG more this season (99.1-91.8). Can Tom Thibodeau's Bulls achieve their lofty goals with a league average defense?
Keys to the Game
Knight Rider - The Suns backcourt, once so deep that allocating minutes for all was a problem, is now fairly reliant on Bledsoe and Knight. Gone are Dragic and IT, so Bledsoe and Knight might see staggered minutes, much as Bledsoe and Dragic did last season. Knight's a 3 and D player, shooting 41% from 3 this season with a 102 D-Rating, which should make him a good fit next to Bledsoe and his penetration skills when they're on the floor together.
Back to Back Blues - One would expect a team as deep as the early season Suns would have success in back to back games, but they're only 4-8 so far this season on the second game of a back to back. My theory is that a team based on transition offense and jump shooting requires fresh legs to be effective. With less depth now, players who logged heavy minutes last night will have to be ready to go again.
Ball Movement - This has been a hot topic of conversation as the Suns offense, while slightly improved from last season, continues to show isolation play tendencies and launch fast, bad shots. The departed IT was a problem here, but Dragic was not, though things did look a little better in last night's game as the Suns exceeded their season average with 23 assists.
3 is a Magic Number - While the Bulls defense has declined overall from last season, they remain strong in 3-point defense, surrendering the fewest made 3s in the league, and 6th best opponents' 3-point %. Sometimes lost amidst the controversy of IT is that he was a highly effective 3-point shooter this season, converting them at 39%. Knight, with his 41%, will need to step in and hit his 3s immediately for a Suns team which is 4th in the league in attempts and 7th in makes.
Earl Barron - OK, Barron isn't a key, but he's back for his second stint with the Suns on a 10-day contract to provide frontcourt depth. Although he didn't enjoy great success in his 12 game 2010 regular season Phoenix stretch, you have to respect the commitment and resilience of a 33-year old journeyman who has been waived 7 times, including twice by the Suns. Barron keeps working to make it in the NBA, and now he has another chance after lighting up the D-League with Bakersfield. We're all pulling for you, Earl!
Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Eric Bledsoe vs. Derrick Rose
Brandon KnightGerald Green (from Coro, see comments) vs. Jimmy Butler
- SF: P.J. Tucker vs. Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
- PF: Markieff Morris vs. Pau Gasol
- C: Alex Len vs. Joakim Noah