In a flashback to the days of the Bench Mob finding improbable ways to win, an even more short-handed Bulls (11-8) team topped the conference-leading Knicks (14-5), 93-85, Saturday night at the United Center.
Led by the a myriad cast of characters playing with heart and selflessness, clutch play and of course, a stout defensive effort, it certainly wasnt pretty, but Bulls held off the best team in the East by exemplifying teamwork, just the way head coach Tom Thibodeau likes it.
A 6-0 Knicks run to start the contestincluding a jumper from former Bull Kurt Thomas, starting in place of the sidelined Carmelo Anthony, alongside another ex-United Center denizen, Ronnie Brewer, at the two forward spots for New Yorkmade it appear as if the hosts simply didnt have enough firepower to keep up with the Eastern Conference leaders.
However, the ever-present rebounding of Joakim Noah (10 points, 11 rebounds) and the three-point shooting of the Kirk Hinrich-Marco Belinelli (22 points, 4-of-6 three-point shooting) backcourt pairing allowed the Bulls to rapidly overtake their guests.
Belinellis outside marksmanship persisted throughout the opening period, but he was countered by the aggressive offensive play of Knicks point guard Raymond Felton (27 points)in the midst of a resurgence now that hes back in New York, after being shipped to Denver in the blockbuster deal for Anthony, then having a nightmare campaign in Portland last seasonand the visitors whittled away at the deficit. New York tied the contest at 23 apiece with seconds remaining in the first quarter after an improbable bank-shot three-pointer by veteran big man Rasheed Wallace, but Belinelli struck again, hitting a buzzer-beater from just beyond halfcourt to give the Bulls a 26-23 advantage at the conclusion of the frame.
Though Belinelli cooled downhow could he not, after scoring 15 first-quarter points?the Knicks did not, as they got contributions from reserves Wallace, sixth-man extraordinaire J.R. Smith (15 points) and sharpshooter Steve Novak, as well as Felton. But the Bulls managed to keep it a close-knit affair, as backup point guard Nate Robinson (14 points, eight assists, six rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (12 points, 10 rebounds) were sources of point production.
A surprise moment occurred when Taj Gibson, generally a happy-go-lucky, if hard-playing type, was whistled for a foul against Novak, then promptly got hit with two technicals in short succession on the way back to the Bulls bench and was ejected. Still, the hosts held it together as Luol Deng (22 points) came alive offensively toward the end of the half and at the intermission, the Bulls had a 43-41 lead.
After the break, the already short-handed Bulls became even more undermanned when Hinrich didnt start the third quarterRobinson filled in for himdue to a left-elbow injury. Behind forwards Deng and Boozer, however, the hosts soldiered on and played the visitors to a draw midway through the period.
Maybe Brewers presence inspired them, but the Bulls gutted out a gritty collective effort, similar to how the Bench Mob would dig deep in the absence of Derrick Rose or other injured stars over the past two seasons, with reserves Robinson and Jimmy Butler (eight points, seven rebounds) each making positive impacts, along with continued solid contributions from Belinelli, a trio the team doesnt absolutely count on to win games. Despite Feltons blend of scoring and playmaking still hurting them on the defensive end and center Tyson Chandler (14 points, 18 rebounds), the reigning league Defensive Player of the Year, controlling the paint, the Bulls headed into the final stanza ahead, 67-65.
Rookie Marquis Teague, who hasnt received meaningful playing time since prior to the Circus Trip, when he held his own against Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo, had a brief, uneventful stint early in the fourth quarter. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau instead, stuck with his regulars and with Dengs quiet consistency as a clutch scorer, Noah mustering up the energy to make his presence felt late, Robinson, Butler and Belinelli making timely plays and a stout defensive effort forcing the quick-triggered Felton and his teammates into a woeful shooting night, the hosts somehow maintained their slight edge as the contest entered its stretch run.
A Noah layup with 56.1 seconds left made it a three-possession game, 89-82, and although the Knicks furiously attempted to make a comeback attempt, Robinsons ability to make free throws under pressure sealed the deal. Just like in the past, the Bulls collective effort outweighed anything they could have done on an individual basis.