When: 7:00 PM AZ / Mountain time
Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: NBATV, Bally Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
DraftKings betting line: The Suns are 5.5-point favorites over the Bulls in this game
The top-seeded Suns begin a stretch of six games against winning teams in the next two weeks against the Bulls, who are trying to stop their free-fall down the Eastern Conference playoff standings.
The Bulls have lost 7 of their last 9 games, with their only wins over the lowly Pistons and hurting Cavaliers. They are 1-5 against winning teams in those 9 games.
The Suns have won 8 of 12 since Chris Paul went down, but are only 1-3 against winning teams in those 12 games.
One of these teams will feel better about themselves by 10pm tonight.
Last time you saw the Bulls, your Phoenix Suns waxed them in Chicago. The final score was 127-124, but the Suns had a comfy 15-point lead with 1:41 to go before the deep benches finished out the game.
Probable Starting Lineups
Suns: Chris Paul (thumb) is OUT, Jae Crowder (groin) is QUESTIONABLE, Cameron Johnson (thigh) is OUT. Frank and Dario are out of course too.
Bulls: Lonzo Ball (knee) is OUT, Patrick Williams (wrist) is OUT
As mentioned above, the Bulls have lost 7 of 9 games even as they begin to get a little healthier again.
They are quite a dangerous team and pose a serious threat in the East playoffs if they can get back to playing like they did before Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball suffered injuries.
They have three All-Stars in their primes in the starting lineup — DeMar DeRozan (5 times, including 2022), Zach LaVine (2 times, including 2022) and Nikola Vucevic (4 times) — and a top-ten offense, but their defense has truly suffered without Ball and Caruso.
DeRozan has been on fire this season in the clutch, with a pair of game-winners in his back pocket alone. The Bulls are 22-15 this year in the clutch, tallying the second-most clutch wins in the league.
Caruso is back now, having played 25+ minutes in their last three games. The more he rounds into shape, the better the Bulls defense will perform.
The Bulls recently signed Tristan Thompson, giving him their bi-annual exception, to shore up their front court defense as well.
By playoff time, they should have Patrick Williams and Lonzo Ball back too.
Besides those injuries, the other wild card in the Bulls playoff run will be the health of Zach LaVine’s knee. He’s been dealing with soreness in it since mid-January, and has not looked like his bouncy self of late.
It’s all about health and setting up for playoff adjustments now.
In terms of health, the Suns won’t have two starters (Chris Paul, Jae Crowder) and a major backup (Cameron Johnson) tonight. Crowder is the only ‘possible’, but the Suns are playing everything very safe.
The Suns have a commanding 8-game lead on the next best team in the West with only 12 to go (and just 10 for second-place Memphis), so their only on-court motivations these days are about playoff readiness.
To wit, Deandre Ayton has been playing a lot more on the perimeter in switching defenses the last few weeks, resulting in a down-turn of his rebounds per game and the team’s rebounds on the whole. That’s a playoff prep move. Playoff opponents would love to get the Suns out of their ideal lineup, either playing Ayton off the floor by forcing perimeter switches and beating him off the dribble and/or by forcing the Suns to play two bigs to keep rebounding in check. So they’re spending the final month of the season trying to get the defensive rotations and switches into muscle memory that will allow the Suns to keep to what they do best on both ends.
On the other end, the Suns don’t want to be so Book/Paul heavy on offense this year like last year. Last year’s playoff Suns were highly controlled. Paul and Booker were the two-headed snake either scoring or assisting on most every shot. This worked okay for the Suns, getting them to the Finals, but they had the biggest drop-off in offensive efficiency in the playoffs last year because teams were scheming the ball out of Book and Paul’s hands.
This year, Mikal Bridges has developed a slicing-across-the-lane middy that seems to drop 90% of the time, Deandre Ayton has developed a killer turnaround hook, and even Jae Crowder has broken out a floater game.
It’s been fun watching a more diverse offense this year and this time without Paul has been a blessing to see if they can perform in the clutch and against winning teams.
With Paul leading the charge, the Suns were a league-best 23-3 in the clutch. Since his injury, they are only 4-3 in the clutch (including that injury-game comeback over Houston). To be fair, they were also without either Cameron Payne or Devin Booker in two of those clutch losses.
Matchup to Watch: Deandre Ayton vs. Nikola Vucevic
One is a four-time All-Star. The other is a former top overall pick. Ayton, the former top pick, is primarily a chameleon in the NBA by filling in whatever role his coach needs and helping the Suns make the Finals as a raw 22 year old. Ayton might have snuck into the All-Star game this year if not for missing half his team’s games for various maladies.
Vucevic is a crafty veteran who built himself into an offensive-minded All-Star, and got named to the East All-Star team four times in five years between 2018-2021. Many Suns fans wanted to swap Ayton for Vuc as recently as last year, when he instead was traded to the Bulls after a great Orlando career.
In seven career matchups, DA has the better record while Vuc has the better stats.
Tonight is another chance to judge for yourself who you’d rather have on the Suns.
The Bulls have lost 5 of their last 6 to winning teams, while the Suns have lost 3 of their last 4 to winning teams and are missing three big-time players.
But the Suns are at home, and that gives them the edge in this one. DraftKings has the Suns a 5.5 point favorite. I suggest you bet the Suns.