By now, these types of victories are becoming par for the course.
Sure, the Bulls can be inconsistent—something that’s at least partially a product of their myriad of injuries—but no matter the opponent, it’s now a prudent decision to bank on them elevating their game when presented with a scenario in which the odds seem stacked against them, as was the case Thursday evening, when they topped the Knicks, 118-111, in overtime at the United Center, ending their guests’ 13-game winning streak.
If it occurred in less than dramatic fashion, it would have been unlike the Bulls, so after overcoming a horrid beginning to the contest and the game again getting away from them in the third quarter, when Jimmy Butler made back-to-back steals and subsequent fast-break dunks, the writing on the wall started to become clear.
“Again, we dug a big hole early, fought out of it, then started off the third quarter and sort of fell into the same thing that we started the game with,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When we got behind big, those two steals by Jimmy re-energized us.”
It was a strange type of game—for one, the Bulls actually had more healthy bodies than their opponent, as the Knicks only had nine players in uniform—as small ball ruled the evening, with the trigger-happy visitors comfortable in that style of play and the hosts having to adapt, making for some unique matchups and situations in which the likes of All-Star small forwards Luol Deng and Carmelo Anthony occasionally functioned as nominal centers.
In short, it was the type of game in which Nate Robinson thrived.
The diminutive scorer went off for a season-high 35 points on the night, hitting big shot after big shot throughout the contest.
“You’ve got to give him some rope. That’s who he is. He’s not afraid, he’s a shooter, he’s got a short memory, so if he misses, the next one comes, he’s not hesitating and I think the scorers in this league have that mentality,” said Thibodeau, who also noted that it was a “monster game” from the backup point guard.
“He’s been a catalyst. I like the fact that he can come in and in a very short amount of time, knock down three or four shots down very quickly for you, so I thought he made some very timely plays. I thought he battled and we were spread out pretty good, a lot of pick-and-rolls. I thought he competed really hard today.”
Robinson himself downplayed his effort, saying, ““I just love to play basketball, love to have fun…I just play off my energy and I guess if I’m hot, if I’m feeling it, I’m going to play accordingly.”
Anthony continued his personal streak of consecutive games with 35 points or more, but he didn’t do it in efficient fashion, as Butler took the challenge of defending him with Deng saddled with foul trouble in his return to the lineup after missing the Bulls’ past two games with a right-hip injury.
In addition to frustrating Anthony into 13-for-34 shooting, Butler was also a force on the other end of the court, continuing to establish himself as one of the league’s emerging two-way players with a 22-point, 14-rebound outing.
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“My goal was just to make everything tough on him. I feel like he’s a great player, so he’s going to make shots. That’s what they do,” said Butler, focusing on his defensive effort. “Just challenging him. I’ve got the utmost respect for the guy. He’s very talented. At the end of the day, he’ll go down in history as being one of the greats of this game.”
Thibodeau enthusiastically chimed in: “You’re never going to stop a guy like [Anthony] and he’s done it for a long time. You’ve just got to try to make him work for his points. I love Jimmy’s demeanor just because it’s tough. A guy’s coming at you and you’re battling him. He had a couple tough calls go against him and Carmelo has the ability to make a shot when you defend him well, but Jimmy will keep coming. He doesn’t get discouraged, he keeps battling, he’s improving each and every day. He’s just gotten so much better, great worker. He did an unbelievable job for us.”
As always, the win was a team effort, but more than anything else, it showed that after struggling as of late, the Bulls are focused on righting the ship with only four games before the postseason kicks off, even despite their numerous health concerns.
“We’re not focused on stopping streaks. We’re just trying to get better as a team going into the playoffs,” Robinson said. “It’s just us trying to play as hard as we can. We let a couple games get away from us, so we knew coming in today, they’re a hot team and we just had to cool them off.”
Thibodeau concluded: “I do believe toughness—mental toughness—is critical, particularly when you’re facing some adversity, 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, and I liked the way we bounced back tonight. But they’re going to keep coming, so we have three in four days. We’ve got to be ready for Toronto. Toronto beat us badly here; we’ve got to be ready when we go up there.”