Bulls prepare for Suns as playoff underdogs


Mar 29

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Well, that was a fun playoff race while it lasted.

Remember when it got going for real after the Bulls beat the Pistons in Auburn Hills Sunday afternoon? It didn’t look so good about 24 hours later when the seemingly dysfunctional Toronto Raptors went into Charlotte and outplayed the Bobcats 103-101.

It gives the Raptors a full one game lead on the Bulls for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference along with the tiebreaker, so, in effect, a two game lead. And the Raptors now play the pretty-much-giving-up Clippers, 76ers and Warriors.

You can get hurt jumping off this bandwagon so often. It’s tough to be a front runner when you don’t know which direction the parade is heading.

“We can’t afford to lose any games at this point and obviously we put ourselves in this situation during the first part of March,” Brad Miller said after Sunday’s win in Detroit. “All we can do now is win. We have had some tough games and these last couple (New Jersey and Detroit) is kind of our little breather before we play Phoenix, Boston, Cleveland and Toronto. We play everyone in front of us so Toronto is obviously going to be a big game.”

At least on paper, the Bulls schedule the rest of the way is more difficult than Toronto’s. The Raptors have just three games left against winning teams. The Bulls have six, and that’s not counting the April 11 game in Toronto. The Bulls’ opponents have a combined 51 percent winning percentage compared with 47 percent for Toronto’s. Though if the Bulls fall short, it could be on Michael Jordan, who is no Kevin McHale.

You’ll recall how McHale gifted his former team Kevin Garnett and a title while Jordan’s Bobcats Monday lost at home to reeling Toronto, which had benched Hedo Turkoglu for apparently having too much nighttime fun while allegedly hurt. Yet, there was Charlotte with a chance to at least tie at the end and Raymond Felton is throwing a pick and roll pass to a diving Tyson Chandler. You could see Mike grimace as he knew Tyson had no chance of catching that low pass. The Bulls grimaced as well.

And now with Charlotte stumbling some they’re not about to lie down as the Bulls host them Saturday and then close the season April 14 in Charlotte. How ironic would that be for Jordan’s team to knock out the Bulls on the last day?

But there’s a lot of getting there until then, and they don’t come much tougher for the Bulls than Tuesday against visiting Phoenix.

The Suns at 47-26 have been the league’s hottest team the last two months, winning 21 of their last 26 and working on seven straight. They’re now fourth in the West and a game and a half out of second. They’re still leading the league in scoring, but are much more efficient defensively, ranking 11th in field goal defense.

The Bulls get a break with center Robin Lopez not on the trip with a back injury. His center defense has been crucial and allowed Amar’e Stoudemire to play his natural power forward position.

The Suns started Jarron Collins in Minnesota Sunday, and the Bulls could only hope. But it’s more likely the Suns go back to their spread-the-court game with Channing Frye at center, whom the Bulls worked over pretty good in a Phoenix in January. Though that was when Joakim Noah and Luol Deng were playing and playing well. Deng remains out with a calf injury and Noah hopes to be up to about 20 minutes with his plantar fasciitis. James Johnson remains day to day with his.

It also was the scene of the great Derrick Rose dunk on Goran Dragic, who has been perhaps the first real point guard sub the Suns have had for Steve Nash as Dragic avoided deportation after being dunked on like that. The Suns also have Leandro Barbosa back.

But the big thing has been Stoudemire, who has been as good as anyone in the NBA the last two months.

He’s averaging 28.8 points and 10.3 rebounds and shooting 59 percent in March with an average of 11.4 free throws per game and converting 86 percent. He’s making opponents cower and cry he’s been so dominant and scary. In February, he averaged 25.3 points and 10.1 rebounds.

Which has been great for the Suns. But also a head scratcher.

Where’s that been for six years?

Oh, right, Stoudemire can be a free agent this summer. And he welcomes discussing it as he’s basically gone around the league like Scottie Pippen in 1994 saying he’d love to play everywhere.

The Suns had Stoudemire available at the trading deadline the last two years, but never got a great offer even as he’s been, at least, a great offensive player for years. Will they pay him with a large payroll? Can they afford not to? Will he stay the way he’s been made available? He’s never been high on the Bulls list of free agents. Just because of the kind of reservations the Suns have.

Teammates say it’s a different Stoudemire, no longer so remote and moody and while playing defense and rebounding, two jobs he previously eschewed. It’s been sort of a running joke the last five or six years in Phoenix as Stoudemire, when healthy, would put up huge scoring numbers. And before games opposing coaches would come over to then Mike D’Antoni or now Alvin Gentry and apologize but say whomever Stoudemire was guarding would be in the pick and roll, and he was scoring most every time.

That’s changed as Stoudemire has changed. But is it a salary drive or Memorex? Sorry, old commercial.

It’s going to make for a heck of a summer for the Suns as GM Steve Kerr, after a choppy start, has seen implemented the few tweaks he once sought that drove D’Antoni off. They play defense and they use the bench. Otherwise, they’re mostly the same Suns. Which means good and dangerous and fun to watch.

Thinking of Stoudemire, I am reminded of Tyrus Thomas.

Tyrus missed Monday’s game against the Raptors with an ankle injury, and yes, still is hurting the Bulls from afar.

Fans ask me about picking him in the 2006 draft over LaMarcus Aldridge. And the reason was the Bulls believed then Thomas was the next Stoudemire. If they were right, and they weren’t the only ones who thought so, then it was the right pick.

Physically they are similar with Stoudemire being a bit stronger. But Tyrus was young and the Bulls assumed he’d fill out. Their games looked similar at the same age with Tyrus having a nice jump shot and form and amazing leaping ability and athleticism, like Stoudemire. And Stoudemire didn’t go until 9th in 2002 as a project. He averaged 13.5 and 8.8 rebounds as a rookie, numbers the Bulls projected for Thomas.

Of course, we know it didn’t work as perhaps no one could have seen Thomas having, at least in my memory, the worst attitude toward people and most anger of perhaps anyone I’d seen come into the NBA.

Really, Thomas should have been Stoudemire, so perhaps that’s what puts Stoudemire farther down on the Bulls free agent power forward list. But Stoudemire is much more approachable, especially lately, and, obviously, far more talented. And suddenly, after serious knee and eye surgery, a player capable of leading his team.

It’s a $100 million guess to find out if it’s for real.

But he sure has been putting on a show these days. And not one the Bulls are thrilled about seeing this time.

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