Knicks and Bulls go at it again like it’s 1993


Dec 22

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It felt like Bulls/Knicks Friday all over again when it really mattered. When Michael Jordan was in the face of Xavier McDaniel when he was bullying Scottie Pippen. When Pippen was dunking and stepping over a supine Patrick Ewing and then screaming invective at Spike Lee. John Starks dunking on Jordan and then Jordan, Pippen and Horace Grant stuffing Charles Smith. JoJo English and Derek Harper rolling into the stands throwing punches. Phil Jackson and Pat Riley baiting the officials.

It was similar, in a sense, as the Bulls again won, this time 110-106 in a game marred by a fracas between Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler, a game with nine technical fouls and four ejections.

“Things were definitely escalating, but I don’t think they’re used to being down that much, too,” teased Joakim Noah. “If they were up 20 points, I don’t think they would have been that frustrated.”

Joakim NoahYes, that was the difference. This time, unlike the 90’s when Michael Jordan and the Bulls ruined most of the decade for the Knicks, the Knicks were the hunted with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and talk about going to the Finals with two victories over the defending champion Miami Heat. Though Friday’s victory made it a second straight Bulls win over New York in the last two weeks.

“We got off to a good start offensively, set the tone,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who joined the fun with his technical foul. “I thought our defense and rebounding was good in the first half. In the third quarter (in going ahead by 25), I thought it was really good. You get a 25-point lead on the road against a team like this, you’re doing a lot of good things.”

The game disintegrated after that with Noah, Chandler, Carmelo Anthony and Knicks coach Mike Woodson all ejected as the Knicks scored 45 points in the fourth quarter to just make the final score close.

“One of those nights, one of those games,” said Anthony, who led the Knicks with 29 points but was ejected after a cheap shot at Noah. “We have to move on.”

But, no, it wasn’t just another game.

There’s an old line about New York sports teams. It’s about defining a dynasty. It’s either when a family in China rules for hundreds of years or a New York team wins three games in a row.

The Knicks this season have been feeling pretty heady about themselves coming into the game 19-6 with the best record in the Eastern Conference and two blowout wins over the Heat. But if that is significant, the Knicks privately suggesting it puts them on a level to defeat Miami, then two losses to the Bulls, this one at home and the Bulls without Derrick Rose, suggests furthermore that the Knicks better watch from behind as well.

“We feel like we have the best basketball in front of us and that is exciting,” added Noah, who was potentially on the way to another triple-double with 15 points, 12 rebounds and six assists until he and Chandler were ejected with just under five minutes left. “We feel like we can get a lot better and to get a win like this in the Garden, in front of my family and
friends, I feel blessed to play in this building.”

It was a brutal game in many respects given the Knicks mounting frustration that the fleas on their shoulders weren’t going away and were taking big bites out of their ego. Taj Gibson gave it a try with his sprained ankle and didn’t look so good, leaving after 3:38 and uncertain for Saturday in Atlanta. Similarly for Luol Deng, who was brilliant with 29 points and 13 rebounds. It was Deng, I thought, making two big run stopping shots early in the fourth quarter when the Knicks made their biggest move of the game. The Bulls, as we know, have blown some big leads this season. And Deng stepped into the breech and matched the Knicks long enough for the Bulls to hang on later.

Which was doubly impressive given Deng suffered a shoulder injury with six minutes left in the third quarter and left the game in obvious pain. Deng, nevertheless, returned and led the Bulls with 10 fourth quarter points. But he was due to have a shoulder exam and also remained uncertain about playing in Atlanta Saturday.

“It’s sore right now,” Deng said after the game. “I hope it’s just a muscle. We’ll check it, though. It felt like the longest game ever, a lot of distractions. AT the end of the day, we won and that’s all that matters.”

The win with Marco Belinelli adding 22 points and Kirk Hinrich with his best game of the season with 16 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four of five three pointers, moved the Bulls to 15-10 and a half game behind third place Atlanta in the Eastern Conference.

But it also punctured a bit the Knicks’ notion of Eastern supremacy as the Bulls once again ran the Knicks’ three point shooters off their spots. The league’s best three point shooting team was eight of 26 on threes for 30.8 percent.

The Knicks’ formula for success, which has been impressive, has been to spread the floor with three point shooters and open the middle for Chandler rolling to the basket and Anthony shooting and scoring. But the Bulls’ defense once again thwarted the Knicks’ offense and exposed their defensive deficiencies.

Noah badly outplayed Chandler in the battle of the two Eastern centers on course for All Star consideration. Though Chandler is a vital part of the Knicks’ success with his finish on the pick and roll and basket protection, it was so obvious how much more skilled is Noah and how much more Noah does.

With the Bulls in control with 4:39 remaining, Chandler and Noah got tied up going for a rebound and Chandler took exception. He turned on Noah and they appeared to bump heads and then sort of wanted to get at one another in one of those “hold me back” things in which the players really do want to be held back. Both were then ejected. No one seemed to believe afterward any suspensions were forthcoming.

“From the jump they were the more physical team and carried that out throughout the whole game,” said Anthony. “We reacted rather than coming out of the jump being the more aggressive team. When we tried to be more aggressive, it was too late. They (officials) let him (Noah) be very aggressive tonight. He is the anchor and motor of that team. When he gets going, everyone else gets aggressive.”

Luol DengA cool effort seemed to be something of a surprise since the Knicks had lost in Chicago earlier this month, and when good teams lose they generally want to show the opponent it’s a fluke, a one game thing. Anthony was saying in the Knicks’ locker room afterward he couldn’t wait until the teams play again, which is January 11 in New York. It seems the Bulls have gotten their attention.

“I don’t think he (Noah) is a dirty player at all,” said Chandler. “It was a frustration of the game and we got tangled up. That was that. They took us out of things that we want to accomplish. They are scrappy and they slow the pace.”

It also was a sharp effort from Hinrich, who had been the subject of various fan and media criticism lately. To which Thibodeau expressively disagreed.

“Finally you (media) guys recognized that,” Thibodeau said of Hinrich’s play. “The guy has been playing good all season. He’s got our second highest plus/minus. You guys keep talking about what he’s not doing. All I keep seeing is him playing well. Look at how he shot the ball over the last 10 games prior to tonight. He’s shooting 47 from three. You guys are saying he’s not shooting well. He’s doing a great job of running our team. That’s what I do know.”

So at least it does prove Thibodeau knows what is being said and written in the media.

One issue with the public and media regarding Hinrich is not understanding he is asked by Thibodeau to play something of a sacrificial role. In the way the Bulls defend the pick and roll, which is the primary offense of most teams with Phil Jackson not in the league, Hinrich has to be in position to follow the ballhandler through so the Bulls defense can set and protect the basket and have help guys in the corner to protect against the three. As a result, it’s generally Hinrich’s man who has the opening off the screen, and why point guards have scored well against the Bulls.

It’s the old theory of having to give up something. The Bulls defense is geared to defend the paint for the layup and the corner for the three, the most efficient ways to score along with free throws. Thibodeau’s philosophy is to primarily protect against those opportunities. So you need a very good defensive point guard, which is why Thibodeau pushed so hard last summer for the team to sign Hinrich.

“We play hard,” said Noah. “We don’t back down. It was a tough game and I am happy we won.”

It was a game somewhat reminiscent of those great Bulls and Knicks battles of the 1990’s. Guys were rough; guys cared. You have to give the Bulls credit for their professionalism. Some fault Thibodeau for caring too much. It’s obvious watching Miami at times they don’t care enough. The regular season doesn’t seem to matter. Perhaps not for whether you finish third or sixth. But in how you respect the game.

The Bulls do the game proud because they come to play hard. It may have caught the Knicks by surprise some as their home record coming in was 11-1. But the Bulls may have sent them a message that will help them. You’ve got to do more than just saying thanks when people are telling you how good you are. The Bulls don’t enter many games over impressed, and it’s to their credit.

With this group minus Rose, they are more like the Bulls of the early 70’s with Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier. Not all that much is expected of them, but few really want to play them.

The Bulls were taking it seriously to start, and you can take advantage of the Knicks, as you can with Miami, with size. With Anthony playing power forward and the Knicks usually using three guards to open the court, you can take advantage of some of the matchups, and the Bulls did like with Anthony on Carlos Boozer.

Boozer put a move on Anthony to score early, and then found Hinrich for a three when the Knicks tried to help on him. Boozer added a jumper and Noah a layup on a sharp bounce pass from Hinrich and the Bulls were off to a 14-3 lead.

“We have to come out of the gate a little better to start the game and then we don’t need to fight as hard,” said Woodson.

But Woodson has a problem, and it’s former Bull Ronnie Brewer, who continued to have so many problems Woodson seemed to suggest some sort of basketball intervention. Brewer was scoreless and zero for five against the Bulls in Chicago and zero for four and scoreless in about 14 minutes Friday.

“I have to help Ronnie,” said Woodson. “When guys lose confidence and it happens throughout the course of the year, as a coach and our coaching staff, we have to show Ronnie some more love. He has been a big part of what we have done, and has been a big part of us
being 19-7, and I am not going to kick him to the curb.”

Aw, that’s sweet.

The Knicks’ defense is supposed to be better, though playing so small they are easily exposed, and it was J.R. Smith’s hot shooting that kept them in it early as the Bulls led 30-23 after one quarter.

“They’re really good and keep a lot of pressure on you,” said Thibodeau. “They missed some shots early and we made some.”

The Knicks also seemed to panic early as the Bulls’ defense appeared to sucker them into a lot of isolation plays. When the Knicks have success they are able to move the ball around the perimeter to a designated open shooter, like Steve Novak or Smith. But for the most part the Bulls have been so alert in getting out to the shooters that they’ve had to step inside the line. Smith can. Novak would dribble it off his shoe. As for Ray Felton, the Bulls are going to give him those twos inside the line and live with knowing he’s a volume shooter and his low percentage will hurt the team.

For the game, the Knicks had a measly 14 assists, though just seven through the first three quarters.

Early in the second quarter, Noah connected with Deng on a beautiful bounce pass for a layup, the kind of pass few big men can make. Deng continued to score and Nate Robinson gave the Bulls another nice boost off the bench. Though there is talk about Robinson’s contract since he’s not guaranteed, once again it was the Bulls going to Robinson to make those free throws at the end of the game. He may be a bit wild, but he still helps at crucial times and no matter the occasional distraction, Robinson has seemed to be a plus for the team.

Also, starting for the injured Richard Hamilton has remained a plus for Belinelli, who has continued to score in a variety of ways and did a nice job beating Smith off the dribble for scores. Later in the second, Belinelli hit a three to make it 53-37 Bulls with subtle help from Noah.

The Bulls took off after a Novak miss went long. Hinrich had the middle with the ball with Noah running ahead. Which made the play. Hardly any big man does this. The Bulls could have gotten a shot, albeit contested. But Noah ran the middle so hard the defense had to collapse. So Hinrich then was able to fan the ball out to an open Belinelli for the three. Noah doesn’t get a score or assist or anything on the play. Just the understanding and recognition from his teammates that he makes them better. There are a lot of ways to do that, and Noah is emerging as a leader of this Bulls team. Of all guys, eh?

“They both have a lot of mental and physical toughness, and that’s what makes them so valuable to our team,” Thibodeau said of Hinrich and Noah. “Sometimes you can’t always measure what they’re doing for the team statistically, but you know the team is performing well when they’re on the floor and that’s how you judge them.

“He’s (Noah) playing a complete game,” said Thibodeau with the Bulls having a strong 51-40 edge in rebounds. “He’s done a great job all year. To me, he’s playing at an extremely high level. He’s an elite player now.”

The Bulls led 54-39 at halftime and you could sense frustration now building among the Knicks. Here they were at home and everyone has been telling them how great they are. And these little bugs from Chicago were just biting at their ankles and they couldn’t get rid of them.

And again the Bulls charged out to open the second half as Deng on defense continued to bother Anthony.

Didn’t he know he’s Carmelo Anthony!

The Bulls actually, and uncharacteristically, blew two fast breaks early in the third. But they came back with a Hinrich drive for a score from the top of the key and a Hinrich three to make it 61-43 with about eight minutes left in the third. Then Belinelli scored on a drive as well from the top, a jumper and a pair of free throws to give the Bulls that 74-49 lead with about three minutes left in the third.

This had come a few minutes after things looked bleak for Deng, which would made it bad for the Bulls.

Jason Kidd appeared to strip the ball from Deng, hitting his arm so his shoulder stretched out. Deng was in immediate pain and holding his left arm, not a good sign. Both teams had been having issues with this group of referees, and when asked about the “strip” later, Thibodeau responded curtly: “Some say stripped; others say something else.”

Though the fans in the world’s smelliest and overrated arena were hooting about the calls, both teams had 25 fouls called against them. There’s a general observation about refereeing crews. The better and more experienced officials generally have lower numbers on their shirts. The unofficial rule is if the numbers of the three officials total more than 100, you may be in for an inconsistent night. This crew totaled 108, and thus the fun began.

Deng left the game, but he stayed on the bench. And before long he was back in the game. Deng is poker faced often, but you could tell this game meant something more.

“He said ‘I’m good, put me back in,” related Thibodeau. “I said, ‘I’m good, you’re going back in.’”

Thibodeau said Deng was just “nicked up.”

I don’t think he meant the “Knick” pun, but we’ll give him credit as he was smiling.

The Bulls closed the third leading 83-61 with the Bulls continuing to downsize to match the Knicks shooting game.

The Knicks started trapping and scrambling the game in the fourth, which amounted to an usual 45-point quarter against the holding-on Bulls. Losing Noah hurt as he is a primary trap breaker with his size and dribbling ability. The aggressive Jimmy Butler kept a rebound alive for one of Deng’s scores early in the fourth, and then Anthony lost it after Noah set a hard screen on him on top of the floor. Anthony, in sort of a ‘Who dares touch me’ retaliation, then ran toward the basket and chopped at Noah. With a few choice words, the official had enough and Anthony was ejected with 6:45 left in the game and the Bulls leading 89-74. Dumb, de dumb, dumb.

The Bulls converted three free throws from the technical calls as the game began to list like a ship ripped from anchor, to the Bulls, back to the Knicks and the Bulls. Thibodeau tends to question officials, but more in a pleading way and rarely gets technicals. He got his early in the fourth.

“He gave it to me, so apparently I did (deserve it),” Thibodeau said. “We had a lot of things going against us. I tried to make a point and he didn’t want to hear it.”

With Anthony gone, Smith soon fouled out. Then it was Chandler and Noah soon gone and the Knicks throwing themselves at the basket and fouling every time in the old Pat Riley plan that they can’t call them all. They didn’t, and the Knicks crept closer. But Deng got a layup against the trap and Robinson hit enough free throws to prevent another Milwaukee Meltdown.

“You get a 25-point lead on the road against a team like this, you’re doing a lot of good things,” Thibodeau said. “I’m disappointed with our approach and discipline in the fourth quarter, starting with my fourth-quarter technical. So we gave up 45 points and that’s not good. That’s not the way we want to close a game.”

But now since the Knicks are undefeated against the Heat and the Bulls are undefeated against the Knicks then perhaps the Eastern Conference isn’t so assured. And wasn’t it that Eddy Curry trade that netted the Bulls the No. 9 pick in the 2008 draft which the Bulls used to select Noah? These teams have much in common and perhaps even a rivalry once again. It may be just the beginning.

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