DEERFIELD, ILL. – After ending Miami’s 27-game winning streak, one would think the Bulls would relish the opportunity to develop a reputation as streak-stoppers, something they’ll have a chance to do Thursday night, when New York -- winners of 13 straight games -- come to the United Center.
“We’re not worried about streaks,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said after Wednesday’s practice at the Berto Center. “We’re worried about the Knicks.”
Kirk Hinrich concurred: “I think the satisfaction is just to beat the New York Knicks.”
The Bulls have a chance to sweep the season series, having gone 3-0 against the Knicks thus far and while the rivalry between the teams hasn’t reached the level of the epic battles in the last decade of the last century, when the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (who visited the Berto Center Tuesday) battled against Patrick Ewing, John Starks and others, the matchups have been entertaining and tensions have occasionally run high.
While Thibodeau shied away from detailing exactly why his team has been so successful against New York, he did offer up a rough blueprint.
“It’s not any one particular thing. They’re going to spread you out. You’ve got to try to take care of the ball, protect the paint, cover the [three-point] line, challenge shots and finish with your rebounding,” he said of the Bulls’ defensive strategy when facing the Knicks. “You have to go into the game with a big-time multiple-effort mentality and if you don’t, they can put a lot of points up on the board on you very quickly and any team that you have bad matchups for a minute that can be 10 points very quickly on you.”
Hinrich acknowledged that the Bulls don’t lack for motivation when they play the Knicks.
“We’ve had the edge every time we’ve played them. We’ve competed for 48 minutes and somehow, found a way to win those games, so we just need to find that. Defensively, we haven’t been as good as of late and we’re going to have to be great tomorrow,” he explained. “It’s something that we have to bring out. It’s a long season and when you come with that edge, more often times than not, we usually have success or played well or had a chance, so it’s up to every individual on this team and us collectively to go out and battle.”
Anthony enjoying tremendous run
New York’s current streak is more remarkable because of the injuries they’ve withstood --midseason pickup Kenyon Martin suffered a severe ankle sprain during Tuesday’s Knicks win, joining the likes of fellow ailing big men Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas -- as well as Carmelo Anthony’s heroics.
Engaged in a duel with three-time reigning league scoring champion Kevin Durant for this year’s title, Anthony -- who has frequently played power forward in the small-ball sets the Knicks have employed this season, partially due to injury -- has been on a ridiculous tear as of late, scoring 36 or more points in five consecutive games and averaging over 40 points per game in April.
“Carmelo, he’s such a great player. He’s an MVP-type player, so that carries a lot of weight, in terms of making other people better,” Thibodeau said. “He’s been a great player in the league for a long time. He’s probably one of the top three premier scorers in the league. He can score so many different ways. He can shoot, he can post, and he can drive. He can get his shot, he knows how to get away from defense, he knows how to read defense. Guys like that, they get into a rhythm and they’re hard to stop.
“A guy like that is going to be virtually impossible to stop. You’ve just got to try to make him work for his points and it requires your whole team. He’s seen every type of defense you could possibly see,” he continued. “He makes plays, he gets to the line, he shoots, he shoots the three, he can post up, he knows how to get away from the help, he knows the timing of the help -- he knows when it’s coming, if it’s coming quick, if it’s coming slow -- and he’s got a great pace to his game. He never rushes and he knows how to get to the spots that he wants to get to.
“I think he’s a tough guy to stop and he’s a big-time scorer, big-time playmaker and some of it is he’s just missed some shots that he normally makes, but he’s on a roll right now, so we’re going to have to be at our best,” said Thibodeau.
Hinrich chimed in: “A guy like Carmelo, it has to be a team effort. He’s going to get his. He’s going to get his shots; he’s going to get his points. You just have to try to do the best job you can on him.
Deng’s absence tough to overcome
Luol Deng, one of the league’s top defenders at his position, has had moderate success in slowing down Anthony -- which is no small feat -- but the Bulls could be without his services, as he’s missed the team’s last two games with a right-hip injury.
Deng’s size, length, indefatigable mindset and willingness to keep plugging away against even the league’s elite scorers at least give him a chance against the likes of Anthony, not to mention his ability to attack on the other end of the court, as fighting fire with fire is sometimes the best weapon against top offensive players.
“He’s been the glue to the team for a long time. He does a lot of things well. He’s a great individual defender, great team defender. He scores a lot of different ways, he makes plays, he knows how to move the ball, he knows how to move without the ball and those things add a lot to your team. But that being said, we have a lot of other guys who are capable of stepping in and getting the job done, and we just have to be better,” the coach explained. “He feels a little bit better, but we’ll see where he is tomorrow. I don’t want to jump the gun on anything. I want him to be healthy. That’s the important thing.”
Hinrich added: “He’s huge. We miss him tons, but we feel like as a group, we still think we have enough to get the job done. It’s not going to be easy.”
If Deng is unable to play, expect Jimmy Butler, coming off a career-high 28 points in 48 minutes in Tuesday night’s home loss to Toronto, to get the assignment, something he had to do his rookie season when Deng was sidelined.
“He’s still really young. He doesn’t have too many miles on that body of his,” Hinrich joked about his teammate, who played all 48 minutes against the Raptors. “He’s been huge for us. Every time we’ve needed him to step up, he has and he’s really come a long way.”
Both Deng and top reserve Taj Gibson, who has a left-knee sprain, are questionable for Thursday’s tilt.
“We’ll see tomorrow. Hopefully they improve. Day to day,” Thibodeau said. “When guys are ready to go, they go. That’s just the way we’re going to approach it. Got to improve every day, get guys healthy.”
Joakim Noah is doing “a little better” after receiving a cortisone injection to treat the plantar fasciitis in his right foot earlier in the week, though the All-Star center is still not expected to be back on the court before the end of the regular season.
Meanwhile, shooting guards Marco Belinelli and Rip Hamilton, who returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing 19 consecutive games, are faring well, but will continue to have minute restrictions.
[MORE: Hamilton makes surprise return to lineup]
Knicks’ role players also stepping up
While Anthony’s put up huge numbers and has garnered the headlines, New York’s entire team, despite their injury woes, has played well during the ongoing run.
“Their team is on a roll. It’s not just [Anthony]. You can’t overlook J.R. Smith and the type of season that he’s having. The kid [Chris] Copeland is very skilled, sort of under the radar. This team is very, very dangerous and very good,” explained Thibodeau, a former Knicks assistant coach.
“They’ve had a great season. They’ve played at a very high level. They spread you out, shoot a lot of threes. Got a great player in [Carmelo] Anthony that requires your entire to team focus in on, but you can’t lose sight of all the others that they have. They’re very talented and they can all play make, put it on the floor, can shoot.
“Then you add to that the point guards that they have. You’re looking at [Raymond] Felton, the leadership of Jason Kidd, [Pablo] Prigioni was a great pickup for them. Point guards have the ability to make other guys better and Kidd is special. When it comes to running a team and making decisions, he hasn’t skipped a beat,” Thibodeau said.
“Physically, probably there were times during the course of the season where he maybe got word down and nicked up a little bit, but his leadership and decision-making, he’s always been elite and continues to be elite,” he continued. “You look at that and you’ve got Chandler, a dynamic center, it’s a very well put-together team, deep, so they can withstand injury.
“The other thing, too, is the ability to shoot. I don’t think you can every underestimate that. When you shoot the ball the way they have and the amount of threes that they take, they’re averaging over 10 made, taking almost 30 a game, you can overcome a lot of stuff and it’s a great equalizer. If a team has more talent and you can make more threes, that’s a great equalizer, so they put a premium on shooting and it’s served them well.”
Hinrich chimed in: “They’ve played pretty well all year. They’re one of the top teams in the East and right now, it just seems like they’re clicking. This time of year, you want to try to make a playoff push and start gearing up for the playoffs, and it looks like that’s what they’re doing.”
Chicago-area native Iman Shumpert, a second-year Knicks guard, has also started to find his stride as of late.
Shumpert tore his ACL the same day as Bulls superstar Derrick Rose and returned to the floor in January, though he initially struggled to regain his previous form, which made him a standout rookie and key contributor for New York.
“He’s gotten healthier and healthier,” Thibodeau said. “He’s gotten more confident. He came into the league being a terrific defensive player right from the start and that’s a great starting point. As he’s gotten more experience and he’s learned the league, I think that’s helped him. He took a big hit with the injury, but he’s overcome that. He’s just a tough competitor, very good player.”
Beyond marquee matchup, Bulls seek continuity
More than simply wanting to beat the Knicks, the Bulls want to find their groove with the playoffs approaching, as well as hopefully get some of their walking wounded back in the lineup with five regular-season games remaining.
“Oh, no question. You want to be as healthy as possible and playing as good as basketball as you can. It’s great to have both and that’s what we’re shooting for,” Hinrich said. “The NBA season, how long it is, it’s always a mental grind and it depends on how mentally and physically tough you are, and I think there’s been times where we’ve been very mentally tough and there have been times we haven’t, so it’s just something we have to be conscious of.
“We have to compete, we have to scratch, we have to fight, but we have to start playing well. We’re winding down here and we have to get going before the playoffs start.”
With Gibson and Noah still sidelined, another appearance for Malcolm Thomas could be in order and while he doesn’t figure to be part of the Bulls’ playoff rotation, Thibodeau liked what he saw in the reserve power forward’s extended stint Tuesday -- where his high activity level, athleticism and defensive mindset were all evident.
“I thought he gave us a very good lift. He had good energy. We were very flat and he brought energy into the game. He’s still learning. He’s got to learn the NBA game,” Thibodeau said. “There’re some very instinctive plays that he made around the rim that were very good and there were others plays where he has to learn how to play in the restricted area a little more efficiently. But overall, I was very pleased with what he did.
Playoff seeding is still a concern -- they’re currently the Eastern Conference’s fifth-place team, a half-game ahead of Atlanta and three games behind Brooklyn -- and if the dual goals of getting healthy and playing in the manner they’re accustomed to before the postseason begins mesh, all the better.
But since health can’t be controlled, Hinrich is clear about the team’s top priority: “We just want to be playing better basketball.”