Bulls sweep Knicks and solidify fifth seed


Apr 12

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Carmelo Anthony is one of the elite players in the NBA, a top contender for league Most Valuable Player and one of the NBA’s highest paid players at almost $20 million annually. J.R. Smith is one of the league’s top athletes, a sometimes erratic personality who is considered a strong candidate to be the league’s top sixth man.

Nate Robinson had his non-guaranteed minimum contract finally picked up by the Bulls in January. Jimmy Butler was the last first round pick in the 2011 draft who played about 350 minutes all last season and three minutes in the playoffs.

But Thursday in the United Center on national TNT it was the little and little known guys outshooting and outplaying the big city guys as the Bulls ended the Knicks’ 13-game winning streak behind 35 points from Robinson and 22 points and a career best 14 rebounds from Butler in a 118-111 overtime win. It gave the Bulls a 4-0 season sweep of the Knicks and solidified the Bulls’ fifth seed in the Eastern Conference as they moved to 43-35.

Nate Robinson

“Super fun game,” said the always upbeat Butler, who also helped push Anthony into 13 of 34 shooting as Luol Deng was back from his hip injury but in foul trouble. “We dig ourselves a hole (down 23-6 midway through the first quarter). But it was fun competing against players of such high quality who can do so much on the offensive end.

“It was a team effort,” said Butler, deflecting attention from himself as he always does. “Not about any of my individual effort. We never give up. I feel we play to the last buzzer, 48 minutes or overtime we keep fighting. We wanted this win. It was a playoff atmosphere against a playoff team so we feel that helps us going into the playoffs.”

In addition to his impressive points and rebounds and defensive effort against Anthony, who still had 36 points with Smith at 28, Butler had three blocks and three steals, two of which turned the game around after the Bulls trailed 77-62 with 5:20 left in the third quarter.

The Bulls had recovered from yet another miserable start working in the returning players with Deng joining Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli back. Hamilton, especially, looked better with 14 points and a team high eight assists, and coach Tom Thibodeau was oh so relieved to get back his playing security blanket Deng.

When asked the difference from bad starts the Bulls failed to recover from in losses to Detroit and Toronto and the Knicks’ game, Thibodeau answered: “Luol.”

Asked to elaborate after a long pause that had a cartoon speech bubble that would have said “Duh,” Thibodeau went on:

“It’s just what he brings to our team,” said Thibodeau. “Add Rip and Marco getting back helps. Luol is the glue to our team. When things are tough, he makes us go. There are a lot of subtleties to his game people don’t notice or appreciate. I think all his teammates and coaches do. That’s why he makes our team what it is. When he’s out we’re a different team.”

It was an unusual game with the Knicks missing Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin while for the Bulls Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson remained out. Gibson was trying on his new knee brace after the game he said he’ll wear when he returns in the next few games while Noah remains uncertain with his plantar fasciitis, though he had a spirited pregame workout and moved well. He should also play before the end of the regular season. But with both teams’ top big men out, the Knicks started Chris Copeland at center while the Bulls went with Boozer.

Though Boozer had 13 points and 15 rebounds for his tenth double/double in the last 12 games, he wasn’t that effective, especially early, in taking advantage of his size inside. Eventually, Deng and Anthony became the centers in an all-perimeter game by both teams.

“It was like a 6-5 and under league out there for a while it seemed,” said Kirk Hinrich, who made big offensive plays down the stretch when matched against Jason Kidd, whom every Bulls player was going at. “There were a lot of funky lineups out there.”

It didn’t seem like a game for the Bulls with another of those casual starts. But behind Butler and Deng and forcing Anthony into tough shots the Bulls got within four before a Smith three to end the first quarter gave New York a 30-23 lead.

ESPN had a revealing statistic about why the Knicks probably aren’t going far in the playoffs. Anthony took 34 shots with 53 total touches in the game and in the second half passed just five times with 27 touches.

You’re not winning playoff games not only shooting all those threes, but constantly standing around watching Anthony shoot, as the Knicks do. Though Anthony got a good look at a regular game winner at the buzzer, which suggests it was hardly an easy Bulls win in the end, the Knicks’ offense is predictable with coach Mike Woodson relentlessly calling Anthony postups.

Anthony is a powerful and effective scorer. But he takes most of his team out of the game too often. And he tends to lose composure, as he did once again with a technical foul complaining about Butler’s play against him in the second quarter. Smith also got one because he boils over as the pressure increases, and Robinson got one because he is Nate.

Jimmy Butler

“He’s constant entertainment,” joked Hinrich.

The Knicks generally don’t like to be played tough. Earlier this season, Anthony, Chandler and Woodson were all ejected during a loss to the Bulls.

“Every time we see Chicago, they try to beat us up,” said Anthony, echoing a complaint of LeBron James when the Bulls last week broke Miami’s 27-game winning streak.

And the Bulls also would have broken Denver’s double digit winning streak if Noah’s winning follow had been allowed. As it was, the Bulls became the first team since Phoenix in 1991 to end two double digit winning streaks in the same season.

We’re not sure what that means or why, and it’s not likely to be vital in the playoffs.

Nevertheless, the Bulls have a good game plan to play the Knicks. The Bulls don’t leave the perimeter much to double, which the Knicks rely on to open their shooting game. The Bulls will stunt more and recover, though Hamilton did get a steal from Anthony once on a blind double off the baseline. But the Bulls play the top scorer physically, hit the boards, though in the smaller lineup Anthony had an impressive 19 rebounds, and chase players off the three point line or get in their face deep and take and give the hits.

It was amusing once again to see Anthony late in the game complaining to Boozer about a hard hit, not unlike how James did taking a cheap shot flagrant late in Miami’s streak busting loss. Against the Nets, Boozer also threw down hard his former teammate, Deron Williams. Those muscles don’t only look good. Boozer has been using them to good advantage.

“I do believe toughness is critical, particularly when you’re facing some adversity,” said Thibodeau. So I like the way our toughness is starting to come around. I thought we were playing very good basketball prior to our last two games and then I thought we took a big hit. I liked the way we bounced back tonight.”

That second quarter produced 14 total fouls and three technicals, including one on the generally quiescent Deng as the Knicks still led 59-54 at halftime. But the Bulls behind Robinson also were making shots this time. Robinson has become a polarizing figure on the team, unusually effective for a mostly unwanted free agent for his undisciplined shooting. But he’s also a rarity on the Bulls for his ability to create off the dribble, get shots whenever he wants—and when no one knows they are coming, joked Deng—and give a boost to an often stagnant offense. And with that his treasure trove of antics after made shots that thrill the crowd, which even was chanting “MVP” for Robinson. Now that he did make the team and guarantee his minimum salary, he should be eligible.

“He’s a football player,” said Boozer. “That’s what football players do. They show emotion; they’re passionate. When he’s passionate he’s at his best. That’s why we love his role. He comes in off the bench (most points from a Bulls reserve since Ben Gordon in 2006, including eight of the team’s 13 in overtime) and gives us incredible juice and that’s what we need, especially now being so shorthanded. The way he played tonight was one for the memory books.”

It also was one for the Olympic towel throw that Thibodeau may enter after he got a qualifying entry early in the fourth quarter when Robinson tried a three quarter court lob pass to Hamilton that sailed out of bounds. Though it did come the possession after Hamilton penetrated and found Robinson in the right corner for a three that gave the Bulls an 88-84 lead.

Luol Deng

Robinson and Hamilton being best friends on the team you knew Nate was going to try something. Just that Hamilton doesn’t jump like he once did. Or at all.

“You’ve got to give him some rope because that is who he is,” said Thibodeau, adjusting as best he can. “He is not afraid. He’s a shooter. He’s got a short memory, so if he misses and the next one comes, he is not hesitating. The scorers in this league have that mentality. He’s been a catalyst. I like the fact he can come into a game and in a very short time knock down three or four shots down very quickly. He made some timely plays and he battled. I though he competed really hard tonight.”

I know a lot of fans ask about picking up Allen Iverson. But that’s who Robinson is. Like Iverson, he was a former football player, a strong, tough little man in a big man’s game who has no idea he’s smaller than everyone else. No one on the team takes harder falls than Robinson and keeps getting back up and throwing himself harder into the game. Boozer may be stronger, but no one probably is tougher than Robinson.

He mostly talks in bad Bull Durham sports clichés, so I don’t often pay that much attention to him. But I did like when he was asked about his technical from the emotional Joey Crawford, who delivered those in the second quarter, and said, ”Joey’s a hothead just like me. So I don’t blame him. It is what it is.”

And off he was into the night to take a lot of pictures of himself he posts on social media and perhaps add to his wardrobe of hundreds of pairs of sneakers.

“Nate’s a pure scorer,” said Hinrich. “He hits a couple and it’s over. His confidence goes through the roof and he’s been great for us all year.”

The Bulls looked in trouble as their comeback seemed to fizzle when the Knicks began the second half strong with Anthony and Raymond Felton scoring, Copeland knocking in a three and Deng drawing his fourth foul, leaving Anthony to Butler for the rest of the game. The Knicks were celebrating when Pablo Prigioni beat Hamilton on a drive for a layup to make it 77-62 with 5:20 left in the third and Anthony added a jumper after Hamilton came back to score. But in the end the Bulls would match their biggest comeback of the season and the Knicks with their biggest blown lead at 17 points.

The game turned for the Bulls when first Hinrich disrupted Felton on a drive and Butler picked up the loose ball and broke out for a dunk. On the next Knicks’ possession, Butler picked off a long, lazy pass from Prigioni and had his second dunk in 13 seconds. The crowd erupted and the Knicks went into head down, one-on-one mode and missed their last eight shots of the quarter.

Belinelli came back with a long two, Hinrich made a three, Butler got a switch onto Kidd and drove the aging veteran whom the Bulls were going at on every opportunity for a three-point play. The onslaught continued as Robinson closed the quarter with a three to get within 82-80 after three.

“We dug a big hole early; fought out of it,” said Thibodeau. “At the start of the third quarter, we fell into the same thing that we started the game with and we got behind big. Those two steals by Jimmy got us energized. We had a lot of guys battling. There were a lot of tough match ups out there. They went real small. Carlos had to guard Kidd and Jimmy had to battle Carmelo. Luol was in foul trouble, but Luol playing was huge for our team. And of course, Nate had a monster game. Monster game. We had a lot of guys doing good stuff for us.”

The Knicks clearly seemed to be tiring as Hinrich grabbed his own miss and threw out to Hamilton for a three and 85-82 lead, the Bulls first lead since Deng hit the first shot of the game.

Richard Hamilton

“We had a lot of guys injured, acclimating everyone back,” said Hamilton. “Tonight we really played for something. We saw Atlanta win in Philly. We realized in the locker room what that meant. We want to get as high seed as we can and want to be playing well. You don’t want to be playing bad going into the playoffs. That’s not good for your confidence. We want to be playing right.”

The Knicks were shorthanded as well with the injuries, and perhaps that’s why Woodson played Kidd so much. But Kidd was a statue and Hinrich was taking every chance to go at him, coming up with a rare finger roll drive for a score and 92-88 Bulls lead with 7:51 left. Robinson then made a nice cut off the top and Butler found him for a score and added another of his five threes in a Knicks’ like 11 attempts and with 5:42 left it was the Bulls ahead 99-90. Robinson danced and mugged his way off the court in his series of celebrations. I did ask him after the game if he could provide me with a glossary of the various actions. He looked at me a little curiously and left.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the guy,” joked Deng, who usually carries a serious demeanor for post game interviews. “No, Nate played great, made big shots. When Nate gets going he’s hard to stop. We’re learning when he’s hot to give him the ball. Hip’s still bothering me a little bit, but I felt good. Not 100 percent, but good enough to play.”

Hinrich twice more went at Kidd and was fouled, making four free throws for a 103-96 lead with 2:44 left.

“Kirk had a great floor game tonight,” said Thibodeau. “He ran the team well, guarded multiple guys. That’s probably something that is understated. He’s done that all year. He’s an all league defender in my eyes. I don’t know if anyone is better. You can switch him on to anybody. Defends pick and roll great, runs the team. We function well: I know Carlos is gong to get his shots, I know Nate is going to get his shots. Rip will get his shots, Lu. And it’s in rhythm.”

But even if the Knicks are predictable, sometimes it’s those shots going as Smith made a three to bring New York within 103-99, Felton scored after a wild Robinson three and after Butler and Robinson missed, Anthony drove and was fouled by Butler with 14.5 seconds left. Anthony made both to tie the game at 105 as he may be the game’s best pure scorer and seems likely to win the scoring title the way the Knicks constantly go to him.

“He is such a great scorer,” said Thibodeau. “You are never going to stop a guy like that. He has done it for a long time. We just have to make him work for his points. I loved Jimmy’s demeanor. It is tough, a guy is coming at you and you’re battling him. Jimmy had a couple of tough calls against him and Carmelo has the ability to make a shot when you defend him well. Jimmy will keep coming. He doesn’t get discouraged. He keeps battling. He’s improving each and every day and he has gotten better and better. He is a great worker and has done a unbelievable job for us.”

Deng drove, took a bump, fell and the shot didn’t. The Bulls, though, left 1.5 seconds, giving Anthony one more shot to win, which he missed from 20 feet as Hinrich ran at him and by as regulation expired.

The arena was in a frenzy as was the Bulls locker room with New Yorkers Noah and Gibson as Gibson put it: “Real frustrating because you’re in the back, you want to help your teammates, it’s a big game on TV, you’re playing against the Knicks, your hometown team, Me and Joakim were in the back. We were about to break the TV, but we were just back there going crazy. It’s so frustrating.”

The Bulls then owned the overtime with Robinson driving for a three point play after an opening Felton miss, Deng setting up for a three on a Boozer pass after Anthony scored, coming up with a big block on Smith and then Robinson beating Iman Shumpert on a drive. Deng then pretty much settled it with 1:21 left when the Knicks relaxed, apparently thinking the Bulls were going to stall with a five-point lead. Deng drove in for the layup to not only break another long winning streak, but to go to 6-1 against the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.

“They can have it, they can have it,” repeated Anthony. They can have the regular-season wins. They did a great job at beating us four times. We’re not worrying about them at this point.”

Probably not, at least not that they’d admit. But you know with a winning record against every top six Eastern Conference team but the Pacers and injured players returning it would hardly be surprising if the Bulls remain a team to avoid.

“Big win seeing we don’t really get any respect around the Eastern Conference,” said Gibson in offering his best Forest Gump. “We’re trying to make a statement (that) we’re still a tough team. People don’t understand we’ve got a lot of injuries and still are playing well. With this team you don’t know what you’re going to get. We lose to below .500 teams, we beat some of the best teams in the NBA.”

You never know what you’re going to get from these Bulls. Yes, watch and watch out.

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