The Chicago Bulls are in a rut they can’t seem to dig out of.
Friday’s 129-102 defeat to the Phoenix Suns, who played without Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, marked the team’s third loss in a row, and eighth in their last 10 tries.
Here are nine observations:
1. The Bulls had a Devin Booker problem in Chicago on Feb. 7, when the Suns’ All-Star guard dropped 38 points in a 127-124 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. That theme repeated itself in this one.
Booker scored 20 points in the first half alone en route to 28 for the game, shooting 10-for-18 from the field and 7-for-7 from the free-throw line. He was especially prolific off-the-dribble, whether it be on drives all the way to the rim, or pulling up for midrange. The Bulls didn’t have an answer for him, and it fueled a potent Suns attack.
2. With the Suns ahead 61-48, head coach Billy Donovan tweaked his first unit to start the third quarter, inserting Alex Caruso in place of Javonte Green to start the second half and immediately matching Caruso with Booker.
Caruso had a couple of nice sequences defending Booker in isolation at the end of the first half and beginning of the third quarter, but ultimately, the Bulls couldn’t stop the bleeding. Phoenix won the third quarter 34-24 to secure their stranglehold on the contest, but Booker's six points in that frame were augmented by 10 from Deandre Ayton and seven from Mikal Bridges.
3. The Suns’ 129 points marked the second straight opponent the Bulls have allowed at least 125, and the third straight to score at least 112, counting the 112-103 loss to the Kings that opened this trip.
Worse, although Phoenix dragged its 3-point percentage to 44 by the end of the contest, it wasn’t simply a case of the Suns’ shooting at an infernal level. The dribble-penetration of their lead ball-handlers — Booker and Cameron Payne — was again an issue, and the Bulls sent them to the free-throw line 26 times as a team (of which they converted 24).
All of which is to say: While Caruso, who isn't playing at 100 percent, has had solid moments, he was never going to be enough to fix the Bulls’ defensive woes on his own. The Kings, Jazz and Suns combined to average 122 points per game and shoot 51.4 percent during the Bulls’ 0-3 road trip.
4. At the offensive end, DeMar DeRozan (19 points, 6-for-14 shooting) and Zach LaVine (12 points, 1-for-7) combined for just 31 points on 33 percent shooting. Not enough against the best team in the NBA. LaVine continued a positive theme from the Jazz game by visiting the free-throw line 12 times, but his seven field-goal attempts is season-low (removing the Warriors game he left after 3:32 with knee soreness).
5. For DeRozan, the outing continues a troubling trend. In eight games since his streak of 35-point games on 50-percent-or-better-shooting ended, he is now averaging 24.9 points on 40.9 percent. Whether it be the lofty minutes totals, or sky-high usage role, he’s played all season catching up, or a product of opposing defenses loading up to stop him, that regression has coincided with a 2-8 stretch for the team.
6. And when opponents have geared their gameplans to stifle DeRozan and LaVine, the Bulls’ complementary of late have not stepped up to fill the void. In this one, Nikola Vučević (16 points), Coby White (14) and Tristan Thompson (11) cracked double-figures against the Suns, but as a team, the Bulls shot just 41.2 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from 3-point range. They shot 43.2 percent (30.5 percent from 3) during the three-game road trip.
7. The result drops the Bulls to 3-18 against teams with above .600 win percentages, and 2-17 against the top four seeds in each conference. That this one was a 27-point drubbing at the hands of a team playing without two rotation mainstays — Chris Paul, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder — is all the more deflating.
8. Standings check. In the bad news department, fourth-place Boston took care of business with a 29-point win over the Kings, moving them 1.5 games ahead of the Bulls. And the sixth-place Cavaliers outlasted the Nuggets in overtime, moving them within one game. The bright side is the Lakers came back to beat the Raptors in overtime, so Toronto remains two games back in seventh.
9. The Bulls are the only winning team in the NBA with a below-.500 away record. They possess a 25-10 record at home and 16-19 record on the road. Something to consider as they slip further and further away from a top-four seed — and home court advantage in a potential first-round series.