Bulls with another chance to play streak busters


Apr 11

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Didn’t we just do this? Hottest team in the league on an historic winning streak in the United Center with a top MVP candidate.

This time Thursday on national TNT it’s the Knicks with 13 consecutive wins and with perhaps the hottest individual player as well in Carmelo Anthony, leading the league in scoring after five straight games of at least 35 points and averaging a Jordanesque 40.6 points in those last five.

Jimmy Butler better have gotten some rest after 48 minutes against Toronto Tuesday.

But it’s more significant that just another late season test for the Bulls and the chance for an entertaining night of basketball.

The playoffs are just over a week away, and the Bulls appear to be among the Bucks and Celtics as the three teams stumbling toward the finish line and the most vulnerable in a first round series.

Yes, the Bulls have a big time excuse with so many players out injured, including Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. Rose’s status remains uncertain while Deng, Gibson and Noah are expected to return sometime in the next few games. Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton have returned and are working their way back in. But the Bulls continue to struggle and stumble and look more often like a team knowing the season is short.

Of course, that could change with players returning and being able to play at a high level, even if it doesn’t include Rose. After all, the Bulls are 3-0 against the Knicks this season and all, of course, without Rose. Plus, Tyson Chandler and his recent replacement, Kenyon Martin, both are expected to miss Thursday’s game with their own injuries.

Yes, numerous teams have been without key players of late with injuries and rest disguised as injuries. Though there is something to be said for improving and developing increased coordination as the playoff approach, and the Bulls have been heading the other way with a variety of different lineups, rotations and imperfect performances.

It’s also shown in the statistics category as the Bulls, much of the season among the best in the league in defense, have fallen to ninth in opponent field goal percentage, seventh in best against threes and ninth in rebounding after being among the top three all season. The Bulls also have slipped out of the top five in the defensive efficiency rating while the Knicks are a top three team in offensive efficiency. Now, as long as Amar’e Stoudemire doesn’t come back.

Five of the last 10 teams against the Bulls have shot at least 50 percent, and the Bulls have shot better than their opponents just two of the last 10 games. The Bulls have lost five of their last eight games against teams with losing records. Over the last month and a half, the Bulls are 14-18 and if not for the strong start would not even be a playoff team.

They are tied for last in the league with the 76ers in scoring and 26th in shooting. It’s been their defense carrying them, but given the falloff in both rebounding and allowing so many teams to shoot above 50 percent lately the Bulls have been fortunate to win many games.

The Bulls still do play hard and compete to the end, which has enabled them to hang onto fifth in the Eastern Conference. But the Hawks are closing and now in a tie, though having played two more games. The Bulls have the tiebreaker, which means opening the playoffs in Brooklyn if the Bulls remain ahead of the Hawks or in Indiana if Atlanta moves ahead.

The schedule isn’t particularly kind to the Bulls with Thursday’s game against the Knicks, who are looking to extend that streak and likely not being thrilled about having lost all three to the Bulls. And Sunday the Bulls are in Miami after the Heat accused Bulls players of unsportsmanlike tactics in the Bulls win over Miami last week when the Bulls ended Miami’s 27-game winning streak.

The Bulls had success against the Knicks earlier this season. But the Bulls were as healthy as they’ve been in all three games against the Knicks with Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer, Deng and Noah playing in all three and Belinelli or Hamilton starting in the others. Deng has been the Bulls scoring star, averaging 28 points against the Knicks while the Bulls have beaten the Knicks up on the boards, outrebounding them by more than give per game.

The Bulls also got the Knicks to unravel back in December as Anthony, Chandler and coach Mike Woodson were ejected in a loss in the United Center.

But now Deng is uncertain, Noah seems doubtful and nobody in the NBA is playing better than the Knicks and Anthony.

J.R. Smith has been unusually impressive during the winning streak averaging 23 per game while the Knicks continue to lead the NBA in three pointers taken and made. Though they aren’t a particularly good defensive team, the Knicks are best in taking care of the ball. So they don’t give up many easy points.

You’d think the Bulls’ plan would be to play them physically, run them off the three point line, put defensive pressure on Anthony without doubling to open up the other players and crashing the boards. With Nazr Mohammed and Malcolm Thomas?

The Knicks have wrapped up the Atlantic Division, their first such title in 19 years and are 51-26, nine games ahead of the Bulls.

But without Chandler and Martin it does level the playing field quite a bit as the Knicks have to play smaller. It makes it less a game for Mohammed with Marcus Camby also out and talk of perhaps the injured Kurt Thomas being released to make room for former Wizards forward James Singleton.

The Knicks are one of the league’s highest scoring teams coming off a pair of 120-plus point games and nine games of at least 100 points in their last 10. The Bulls have scored 100 twice in their last 10 as they sink closer to a .500 season.

Though the Bulls have been awakened by better opponents. In their malaise of late in losing to the Raptors, Wizards, Pistons, Mavericks, Trailblazers and Kings the Bulls also beat the Heat, Pacers and Nets. The Bulls, of course, stopped Miami’s streak and appeared to have a long Nuggets streak stopped when an apparent Noah basket was waved off to end the game.

So perhaps this one turns into an offensive contest that could favor the Bulls’ roster with their front line players out. Perhaps Deng returns or maybe Gibson.

Or do the Bulls want to fifth and play the Nets or sixth and the Pacers?

If you can get everyone back and beat the Pacers, then it’s likely the Knicks in the second round and a 4-0 season series would be a nice statement. But the Pacers stand up as a much tougher opponent, a healthier one and a team that holds a 3-1 edge over the Bulls this season.

So for the Knicks it’s about continuing a great run and getting a little payback. For the Bulls, it’s also about whether they are going to get anyone else back. Because you just don’t flip it on to start the playoffs. Because then you’ll have plenty of time to rest after playing four or five games in late April.

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