JACK THOMPSON- Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) – As if the Phoenix Suns weren’t strong enough already, Deandre Ayton is adding some dimensions to his game.
“He’s aggressive in the post. I didn’t see a lot of finesse,” Suns coach Monty Williams said after Ayton scored 20 points in the Suns’ 129-102 win over the Chicago Bulls on Friday night to get closer to the NBA’s best regular season record this season.
“I saw, ‘I’m getting to my point and if you don’t resist me, I can walk through you.'”
Ayton was 8 of 11 out of the field and continued to make midrange jumpers while also coming inside for easier shots. He also led the Suns in 12 rebounds.
On a franchise-best 57-14 in 71 games, the Suns were nine games ahead of second-place Memphis with 11 games remaining. Memphis lost in Atlanta on Friday.
Devin Booker led Phoenix with 28 points. The Suns rolled despite being without two starters — point guard Chris Paul and forward Jae Crowder — and sixth man Cam Johnson, all with injuries.
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“We don’t want to be ‘Chris and Book’ dimension,” Williams said. “We want to be comfortable going to other guys so it’s not new to them at those key moments.”
They certainly weren’t Friday. Cameron Payne had 15 points, Torrey Craig and Landry Shamet had 14 each, JaVale McGee had 12 and Mikael Bridges had 11.
DeMar DeRozan scored 19 points for Chicago, fifth in the Eastern Conference at 41-29. Nikola Vucevic added 16 points. Coby White had 14, Zach LaVine 12 and Tristan Thompson 11.
The Suns are 9-4 without Paul, who has been out since the All-Star break with a broken right thumb.
Craig started his second game in place of Crowder, and the forward came through with another strong performance. Wednesday night in Houston, Craig had 21 points on 8-of-8 shooting, including three 3-pointers, and had 14 rebounds.
“It was pretty impressive to win and hold the lead we got and then hold it in the second half,” said Craig.
For the Bulls, it was more the same. They lost their third straight, falling to 2-6 in March. All of the losses in the series have been on the road, where Chicago is 16-19. After a home game on Monday, the Bulls play away with five.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Phoenix or the teams we played against, but we have to be able to react better when shots aren’t coming in,” Chicago coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought some of the (Suns) offensive rebounds in the second quarter really hurt us and then we started missing shots. We have to develop resilience when things are not going well.”
DeRozan said the team faced some new adversities after a solid season.
“We’re at a time of year when nothing is secret,” he said. “We played great basketball and now teams come after us no matter who we play against. Once we figure it out, we’ll be fine.”
The teams met in Chicago on February 7, with Booker scoring 38 points in a 127-124 Suns win.
“They’re a really good team over there and we played really well,” Booker said. “We’re enjoying this matchup.”
The Suns (48.5%) and Bulls (48.2%) started Friday as teams with the highest percentage of field goals in the NBA. The Suns topped their season average and made 56% while the Bulls struggled and only scored 41%.
Williams was busy preparing for his team’s game, but he was able to watch Notre Dame’s upset win over Alabama in early Friday’s NCAA tournament.
“I watched a bit before I left and then I got a text message saying they won,” the former Ireland striker said ahead of the game. Williams played at Notre Dame from 1989 to 1994. “Coach (Mike) Brey just changed our program. I hope he stays there for another 20 years.”
“It’s a big win for us because it’s difficult to get these elite players to come to Notre Dame because of other things. It’s great that he’s doing it in a year where this isn’t one of those years where they’ve been really, really good.
Bulls: PF Patrick Williams could return to the Bulls next week, Donovan said. Williams has missed 65 games with a wrist injury that required surgery.
Williams is likely to play for the Bulls’ Windy City G-League team on Sunday before returning to the NBA.
Donovan also said G Lonzo Ball’s (right knee) status hasn’t changed. Ball, who has been out since January 28, is in the middle of the original forecast of six to eight weeks but has not been able to resume activities. Donovan said there’s a chance he might not return before the regular season ends in three weeks.
Suns: Crowder (groin pain left) is slowly being brought along. He also missed sitting out in Houston on Wednesday night. Johnson (right quad) missed eight games.
Bulls: Host Toronto on Monday night.
Suns: In Sacramento on Sunday.
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