Well, here it is. Possibly the nadir of the 41-28 Chicago Bulls’ post-All Star schedule, a road game against what has handily been the best team in the league, the 56-14 Phoenix Suns. Chicago has lost seven of its last nine games, and is currently 0-2 in this week’s mini-road trip, thanks to earlier losses to the Kings and Jazz.
Granted, Phoenix will be without All-World Point God Chris Paul, who has seemingly defied everything we know about the aging curve for little guards in remaining one of the best players in the NBA when healthy. He isn’t quite the same athletic marvel he was in New Orleans, but he remains one of the savviest and most effective players in the NBA. Paul has been unavailable for the Suns’ last 12 contests due to a fractured thumb.
When the Bulls head to the Footprint Center tonight, they will be squaring off against one of the hottest teams in the league, Chris Paul or no Chris Paul. The Suns have gone 8-4 since Paul’s injury, and have won their last three straight.
Phoenix will be without key reserve Cameron Johnson, who has enjoyed his best season yet this year. Starting power forward Jae Crowder has been listed as questionable. Key absences to Phoenix’s intimidating front court would be a huge help to the Bulls’ chances tonight. Unfortunately, three of the Suns’ best four players are quite healthy: All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker, future All-Defensive First Team wing Mikal Bridges, and possible future non-Sun Deandre Ayton.
The Suns have proven this season that last year’s NBA Finals run was no fluke, while building on their one big depth issue last season (backup center) with two excellent reserve big guys in JaVale McGee (probably the best traditional backup center in the league) and Bismack Biyombo (he’s been pretty good in a limited role!). The club also shored up its guard depth since its 2021 Finals run, adding Landry Shamet, Elfrid Payton, and Aaron Holiday. They also re-acquired forward Torrey Craig, a helpful playoff piece last year who left for the Indiana Pacers in 2021 free agency, at the 2022 trade deadline.
Ayton has emerged as one of the best centers in the league, an impressive two-way force who can convincingly guard every team’s best big guy this side of the top three 2022 MVP candidates. I think he would be a terrific sign-and-trade addition on the Bulls next year for the right price, should cheapskate and generally unlikable Robert Sarver opt to not retain him in restricted free agency (a deal in the range of Jarrett Allen’s four-year, $100 million extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers feels reasonable). He’s certainly going to shred Nikola Vucevic tonight, as will Phoenix’s slew of guards once they get into the paint. With Paul currently on the shelf, old friend Cameron Payne will get the starting nod. I still can’t believe Cameron Payne is good now, but there you have it.
The Bulls are desperate to nab a good win against a good team, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that will be coming against Phoenix. Heck, we might be lucky to beat the Toronto Raptors on Monday.
During these teams’ first meeting of the 2021-22 season last month, the Suns were on the verge of blowing out the Bulls at the United Center, leading by as many as 15 points with just 1:41 left before both Monty Williams and Billy Donovan emptied their benches. A crazy run from Malcolm Hill helped Chicago cut the lead to make the game fake-close late, and the final tally was a more “respectable” 127-124. But it doesn’t mean Chicago actually played well.
Chicago will look to the newly-returned Alex Caruso to handle Booker for long stretches of action tonight. Unfortunately, an even more lethal defender in Mikal Bridges will most likely draw the assignment on DeRozan for much of the night.
DeRozan’s best late-game release valve, Zach LaVine, is not the reliable option he used to be. Zach’s knee troubles have been on full display since the calendar year rolled over to January. It’s been frustrating to see, and other clubs have exploited the fact that the team’s best late-game option, by far, has become DeMar DeRozan, to the point that LaVine cannot be counted on to help Chicago wrap up a win.
We’ll be lucky to not lose by double digits.
For the Suns, All-Star/Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul remains unavailable with a thumb injury. Starting power forward Jae Crowder has been listed as questionable with a groin injury (Torrey Craig started for Crowder during the Suns’ last game, a 129-112 assassination of the Rockets on Wednesday), and 2019 lottery pick-turned-beloved bench power forward Cameron Johnson will sit with a quad ailment. Terrible Suns reserve bigs Frank Kaminsky and Dario Šarić are also unavailable as they continue to recuperate from knee injuries.
For the Bulls, starting point guard Lonzo Ball’s return timeline remains depressingly murky, as he continues to recover from both a bone bruise and a meniscus surgery in his left knee. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu will most likely continue to get the start in his stead. On the bright side, Patrick Williams remains out, but is currently practicing with the Windy City Bulls and hoping to join the club next week!
9 p.m. CT, NBC Sports Chicago, NBA TV
The Suns are listed as mere five-point favorites tonight, which seems a little optimistic as a betting line. The over/under set for the cumulative game score is 232 total points. (All info via DraftKings. Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.)