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Game Preview: Phoenix Suns host Ro-Lo’s Chicago Bulls

Robin Lopez returns to town to face the Phoenix Suns tonight at 8:30 PM on ESPN

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

What: Chicago Bulls (26-27, 7th in East) vs. Phoenix Suns (16-37, 15th in West)

When: 8:30 PM, on ESPN (late game!)

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: ESPN

Listen: 98.7 FM

In a tumultuous season, the Chicago Bulls are on a recent hot streak to pull back into the playoff picture in the East. The Bulls have won 3 of their last 5 games, including wins over the Sixers, Thunder and Kings and an overtime loss to the Rockets before being blown out by the Warriors on Wednesday when they were extremely short-handed.

The Suns, on the other hand, have fallen back to the depths of the West, losing three straight and 8 of 9 games overall. After hot Januarys, both Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker appear to have lost their edge and shooting range these past few games.

All signs point to a big Bulls win on Friday night on ESPN, but let’s dig a bit deeper to see if maybe the Suns have a chance.

The Bulls

Sure, this game might be more about Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler or Fred Hoiberg, but those storylines are well known. Who knows what's going to happen with those guys on any given night.

What’s fun for me is the RETURN OF RO-LO. Robin Lopez comes back to Phoenix as the Bulls’ center, third on the team in minutes per game (28.7), leading shot blocker (1.6 per game) and tied with Taj Gibson for tops in rebounding (7.0 per game).

Since leaving the Phoenix Suns at age 23, Lopez has been largely been a starting center with averages of roughly 10 points and 7 rebounds per game. He’s played for four teams in five years (Hornets, Blazers, Knicks and Bulls). His best stint was two years in Portland next to LaMarcus Aldridge, but they let him go in free agency and brought in Mason Plumlee instead.

My clearest memories of Ro-Lo are his back problems, unrealized potential and one-handed rebounding attempts (which might have been a product of the back issues). I also remember former overlord Seth Pollack railing on Alvin Gentry for trashing Lopez during his recovery from back issues in 2011-12 which preceded Lopez’ exit.

Ultimately, Lopez ended up with the same UFA deal as many former and current Suns centers. Think about: Robin Lopez, Marcin Gortat, Miles Plumlee and Tyson Chandler all make, right now, between $12-14 million per year.

I bring this up because Alex Len might just follow in Lopez’ footsteps (Alex can only hope he doesn’t follow in Miles Plumlee’s). It looks increasingly likely that Len will be a former Sun while Tyson Chandler coasts into the desert sunset. But before my birthday in August, it’s possible Len will become the highest paid center with “Suns” on his resume since Shaquille O’Neal.

The Suns

The lingering story of the last game was the fight at the end, started by Devin Booker losing his cool with journeyman Troy Daniels.’s (and radio’s) John Gambadoro reports the origin of Booker’s fury:

It’s true that many of us have noticed Booker going off on scoring binges to bring the lowly Suns back into a game they trailing badly. Just the other night when Booker exploded for 27 points in the last 7:13 of the second quarter, that whole run began with the Suns down 25 points (58-33) and ended with the Suns still down 8 points at halftime. Before and after that binge? Booker scored only 4 points in his other 31 minutes of play of an eventual 25-point loss to the Bucks.

But is that a pattern? That Booker only gets hot when the Suns are getting blown out? Maybe a little bit, since many of you are nodding a bit uncomfortably.

But this is the 16-37 Suns we are talking about. The pattern is that the team is so bad the Suns are OFTEN down 10+ points. If you lay the pattern of scoring margins out like a bell curve, it would have a definite lean to the left. So it goes that Booker would have more opportunities than most NBA players to take shots with his team down 10+ points.

Let’s follow Daniels’ advice and look at Booker’s resume. Here are Booker’s scoring splits for the 2016-17 season.

Does anything shock you in there? He’s a better shooter when the margin is 10+ points, as most players whose primary scoring weapon is jump-shooting.

What stood out to me is that despite the team being so bad this year, more than half of Booker’s shot attempts are taken with the game score inside a 5-point margin. Not garbage time. He’s taken more threes with the score +/- 5 points than at any other margin.

And if you recall, Booker has beaten both the Knicks and Kings on game-winning shots on the Suns final possession in the past few weeks.

As you know, Booker is a rare player that scores 21+ points per game at only age 20. In fact, the list of players who’ve done so is very short. The only other pure guard who’s ever put up 21+ at age 20 is Kyrie Irving. Here’s Irving’s line at that age.

Also a better shooter when the game was out of hand versus when it was close. Irving is the closest comp we can get on Booker because of the combination of age and scoring methods, but even that’s not a good comp because Irving is a PG with the ball in his hands on every play.

Let’s see how Booker responds tonight after getting trash talked on Wednesday by a journeyman.


Back to tonight’s game.

What will happen in Phoenix tonight might just resemble what happened a couple weeks ago when the Knicks came to town.

The Suns, who happen to be 10-7 against the East this season (versus 6-29 against the West), might just be able to beat this precarious Bulls team at home under the bright lights of a national ESPN television audience.

Let’s go ahead and predict a Suns win, replete with a.... let’s see here... BLEDSOE buzzer beater.

What say you, Suns fans?

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