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Preview: Resurgent Suns attempt to avenge early season loss to Bulls

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This game should actually be entertaining with two nearly equal teams.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns host the Chicago Bulls

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Probable starters:

Suns - Tyler Johnson, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dragan Bender, Deandre Ayton

Bulls - Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Robin Lopez

UPDATE: Tyler Johnson (sore right knee) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (left thumb sprain) have been ruled out of tonight’s game. Assuming De’Anthony Melton and Mikal Bridges would start instead.

Bulls

OffRtg - 104.6 (29th), DefRtg - 112.5 (28th), NetRtg = -8.0 (27th)

When speaking on the Chicago Bulls this season, the first thing that needs to be brought up is Zach LaVine’s all-around improvements. LaVine is averaging 23.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1 steal on 46.7/37.2/83.0 shooting splits. The former UCLA Bruin has raised his point totals by 7 (16.7 — 23.8) while also taking a leap in playmaking.

I’ve seen many on NBA Twitter try to compare LaVine to Booker, but I don’t really see it when you notice how massive a step Booker has taken as a facilitator. LaVine actually matches up well with Donovan Mitchell, who is also averaging 23 points and 4 assists per game. Both LaVine and Mitchell are high-usage guards with not a lot of offensive firepower surrounding them, but when they get hot it’s hard to stop them at all.

Expect Kelly Oubre Jr. to draw the assignment of guarding LaVine early and often. Slowing him down will be critical for the Suns’ to keep this positive momentum with winning flowing.

Next up on the list is my X-factor for tonight’s game, but also for the Bulls’ entire rebuild: Lauri Markkanen. The Finnish sniper hasn’t really taken a big “leap” just yet but he’s already putting up close to 20 points per game in his second season. Without LaVine on the team, Markkanen seriously could be close to 25 ppg instead of 18.7.

The Suns went with Josh Jackson at No. 4 overall back at the 2017 Draft over names like De’Aaron Fox and Markkanen. Former GM Ryan McDonough didn’t really consider the U of A stretch 4 because they still believed in the development of Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, and we’ve seen how that’s gone the past 18 months.

If Phoenix lets Markkanen get wherever he wants on the floor, that spells trouble against this Bulls team. The prospect they thought could be a Markkanen type in Bender will have to hold his own early and often.

Finally, I would be remiss not to talk for a moment here about Bulls head coach Jim Boylen. If you want to see the polar opposite sideline demeanor from Igor Kokoskov, watch Boylen when he gets animated.

After firing Fred Hoiberg, Chicago signed Boylen and it was rocky with long practices and reportedly running suicides. The relationship seems to have grown since then, though, because LaVine just paid his ejection fines this weekend from his spat with Clippers coach Doc Rivers.

This Bulls squad is full of promising talent and interesting personalities who actually match up well with the surging Suns. If Phoenix comes out slow, it could be a rough one.

Suns

OffRtg - 104.8 (27th), DefRtg - 113.2 (29th), NetRtg = -8.4 (29th)

Devin Booker seems to be thriving right now and willingly giving viewers a sneak peek of what’s to come in Year 5. Over his last six games, Booker is putting up bonkers numbers that are even better than James Harden.

Booker - 32.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 10.3 FTA; 48.1 FG%, 38.5 3PT%, 87.1 FT%

Harden - 30.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 9.3 FTA; 40.4 FG%, 25.4 3PT%, 87.5 FT%

As you can tell, that really is Harden 2.0 that Booker is currently pulling off. Booker is snapping out of his cold stretch from beyond the arc while also continuing to convert at the rim early and often at a 65 percent clip.

If Booker can keep this up over the final 11 games of the season, there should be some serious consideration for Booker to be in consideration for Western Conference Player of the Month for March or April. And it should make Suns fans giddy as well because Booker could be making the true star leap right now.

Suns PR just announced that Kelly Oubre Jr. is questionable for tonight’s game with a thumb sprain, but he’s been vital to the Suns’ recent success. Only three players are averaging at least 20 points and 2 steals per game since the All-Star break: Bradley Beal, Harden and Oubre Jr. Pretty impressive list to be a part of.

Oubre Jr. also seems to have found a long-term home in the Valley. His strengths continue to be maximized by Igor Kokoskov’s staff, which is awesome to see. Over 40 percent of his shot attempts since mid-February have come from inside the restricted area. For an athletic wing like Oubre Jr., that’s one of the easiest shots for him.

It’s very impressive, especially with the month-long stretch we’ve already witnessed, that Oubre Jr. continues to stuff the stat sheet defensively while pouring in the points as a secondary option alongside Booker and Deandre Ayton.

If Oubre Jr. can’t go tonight, that will be a big blow to the Suns’ chances. For someone who wasn’t valued highly with the Wizards, his absence actually would matter with the Suns. We’ll see before tipoff if “Samurai Papi” ends up starting.

The Suns’ X-factor for tonight’s game has to be Deandre Ayton. Phoenix’s first No. 1 pick in franchise history has battled through adversity recently and showing some real improvements defensively.

In a one-on-one matchup versus Robin Lopez, this is where he should feast. Almost all of the other assignments are equal, but the difference between Ayton and Lopez is definitely huge. Kokoskov and Co. needs to feed the Bahamian big fella early and often in this one, as he could be the difference in a closely contested game.

Ayton has tried to work his way through the rookie wall, averaging a career-low in rebounds this month and second-lowest in points the last nine outings, and a breakout performance versus Chicago would be a welcomed sight.

Remember earlier this month when Ayton dominated the Los Angeles Lakers on his way to posting a line of 26-10-3-2-1 on 8-for-11 shooting? That’s the type of game I’m expecting, and one Phoenix might need if their scoring wing ends up unable to go.

Prediction

This game should be one of the more entertaining ones this season at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Whenever I’ve said that, though, it usually goes the opposite direction. I’m confident this time with how even these two teams really are.

Both Booker and LaVine will rack up the points, but the matchup between Ayton and Lopez will decide this one. If Ayton can’t have success, Phoenix will end up on the wrong side of scoreboard.

Well, I think Ayton will on his way to another 20-point, 10-rebound outing with another 30-plus point performance from Booker. The Suns’ inside-out combo works wonders on their way to a 7-6 record since the All-Star break.

Suns 116, Bulls 113