Most headlines and talk (depending which city you live in) will be about the Bulls ending another double digit winning streak, or the Knicks blowing a 17 point lead and being unable to close out a team who has now beaten them all four times this season. However, if your focus is on the Eastern Conference playoff picture, you recognize how significant a win it was for the Bulls.
The Bulls entered Thursday tied (percentage points ahead) with the Atlanta Hawks for the 5th seed in the East. The Bulls would be wise to lock up the 5th seed and avoid the Indiana Pacers in the first round. The Pacers play a similar grind-it-out style to the Bulls, and did take the season series against Chicago 3-1. Conversely, the Bulls won the season series against the Nets 3-1 and appeared to be too physical for the Nets down the stretch of games.
I can’t imagine the Bulls front office and coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t see the Nets as a more favorable first round matchup, despite not having home court. While the Nets are only 3 games behind the Pacers in the standings, Indiana possesses a much more dominant home court presence with a 30-9 record. While Brooklyn will be loud for a potential game 7, the Pacers recent playoff experience is more of a concern when facing a deciding game in a playoff series.
With Luol Deng sidelined courtesy nagging injuries/fatigue for 2 games, the Bulls found a way to lose to two sub .500 teams in Detroit and Toronto. Joakim Noah returned for one game and then received a cortisone shot, and then news surfaced that he could miss the remainder of the regular season. I started to question if the Bulls recognized that they could be dealt with a more difficult first round opponent should they continue to squander the lead they had for the 5th seed.
It was such a relief to see Deng in the lineup Thursday night. However, the Bulls came out flat and their defense looked non existent early on. The Knicks would knock down five 3-point field goals in the opening quarter and built a 17 point lead. The Knicks, winners of 13 straight, appeared to finally figure out the Bulls defense that they were unable to solve in the previous three meetings.
The Bulls responded almost immediately and countered the Knicks attack with a barrage of their own. Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson were huge factors in the comeback. Tom Thibodeau also adjusted nicely as the Knicks would only hit five more 3’s over the final 3 quarters and overtime. The Bulls pulled within 5 at the half, however, the Knicks would build their lead back to 15 in the 3rd quarter.
With just under 5 minutes remaining in the 3rd the Bulls trailed 79-64, but closed the quarter on a 16-3 run, and trailed only 82-80 entering the 4th quarter. The Bulls actually built a 9 point lead of their own in the 4th quarter, only to see the Knicks tie the game and have a chance to win the game in regulation.
Carmelo Anthony, who had been averaging over 40 points per game over his last five contests, missed a shot at the buzzer that would’ve given the Knicks a 14th straight win. Melo finished with 36 points and 19 rebounds, but couldn’t lead the Knicks to victory on this night. Instead it was former Knick Nate Robinson, who led the Bulls with 35 points. Robinson, who is known for his frantic play that can sometimes make his coach cringe, delivered the Bulls a much needed win. Robinson has no fear and always does his most damage late in games; he scored 10 in the 4th and 8 in the extra session, outscoring the Knicks by himself in overtime.
Despite the Knicks recording 111 points, the Bulls defense held them to just over 40% from the field. The Bulls not known for their production from beyond the arc, actually matched the Knicks with ten 3-point field goals in the game. Due to injuries to Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, the Knicks played a small lineup the entire game, and the Bulls countered with their own. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Bulls win this kind of game. They normally abuse teams like the Knicks on the glass, but to play that open court style and win, it makes you smile as a fan.
Of course the concern is now Friday night in Toronto. The Raptors just beat the Bulls in Chicago Tuesday night. Hopefully the Bulls can treat it like a big game despite being fatigued from a back-to-back. It would be nice to see the Bulls actually get up for a bad team. We already know they can beat the good ones.
Rose news: During the TNT broadcast it was mentioned that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said Derrick Rose can return at any time, and would get right back into the mix with no fear of chemistry issues. They said Rose takes part in practice daily so there is zero concern of his presence having any negative impact on the floor.