PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns know where to expect their scoring. Guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are each averaging 20 points a game, two of 10 players in the league at that level, and Markieff Morris is a threat.
In P.J. Tucker, the Suns may have another option.
Always a tenacious defender, small forward Tucker has made it a point to extend that play to the other end. He’s scored season highs in each of the last two games, and with 20 points was two short of his career high in a 103-97 loss to Chicago on Wednesday.
“I just want to be more aggressive now, period,” Tucker said.
“I kind of started the year off deferring to everybody else, not being as aggressive. We have so many guys who can score the ball, I defer to try to get it in to keep them going, or make the extra pass to Brandon or ‘Bled’ to get them going. Our rotation is getting tight. I need to find my spots and when I get my shots, there are times when I get my chances.”
Tucker was at his assertive best on a remarkable possession midway through the third quarter, when he scored a layup on the Suns’ seventh shot of the possession. He had three of his seven rebounds during that stretch, too.
With Morris out with a knee sprain against the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, Tucker had 11 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes.
He tied a career high with 15 field goal attempts against the Bulls, making eight. Tucker played 34 minutes, in part because of the absence of reserve small forward T.J. Warren because of the flu-like symptoms, but he said that played only a small part in his approach.
“I have to be a more aggressive player, especially when they put their best defender…sometimes there is a ‘3’ man on Eric or Brandon, then I get opportunities with a smaller guy.”
As a ‘3’ defending Bulls off guard Jimmy Butler, Tucker had the most difficult defensive assignment of the game. Butler, who averaged 19 points a game coming in, ended up with 32 points, including nine of the Bulls’ last 11.
After Bledsoe gave the Suns (6-5) an 88-87 lead on two free throws with 4:47 remaining, Chicago used a 14-6 run to take control.
The Suns missed a couple of penetration shots that they have made, and Butler and Kirk Hinrich made some pressured three-pointers. Hinrich started instead of Derrick Rose, who suffered a sprained ankle on Monday.
“It came down to making stops at the end,” Tucker said. “They made some tough shots, but we gave them some easy ones, too.”
The Suns made it too easy for the Chicago in the first quarter, when the Bulls made 10 of their first 13 field goal attempts and ran to an early lead that kept the Suns climbing uphill the rest of the way. The defense in that stretch was too passive.
“Their guys were able to line up their shots,” Hornacek said. “You are always playing a mind game against the other team. You want to try to make him do what you want, not the other way around. If you are waiting for that other guy to make his move, you are at his mercy and you are in trouble in this league.”
Once the Suns took the lead at 88-87, the Bulls made shots again.
“They got it going early, and that basket looks big late in the game once guys have seen it go in,” Tucker said. “We didn’t get a lot of consecutive stops tonight. We relied way too much on our offense.”
The Suns won three of the the four games on their first extended homestand, their longest of the season until they play seven straight games at home on either side of the All-Star break Feb. 12-14.
They are 5-3 at home, the same start as last season, and good play at home is a focal point. The Suns were 6-7 at home through mid-December last year, and it wasn’t so much as the teams they lost to. The Suns lost November home games to Charlotte, Sacramento, Orlando and Detroit last season, none of whom finished with more than 33 victories.
“That is one of the main things we want to do right now, get a good strong home record going this season,” Tucker said. “Once we get rolling, hopefully we will be the road team we’ve been in the past. So if we play better at home, we will be right there at the end.”
The Suns play three road games in four nights, start with a game in Denver on Friday.
“The big emphasis, we have to do better than we were last year,” Hornacek said. “Then if you play decent on the road, you have a chance to put up a lot of wins.”