NEW YORK — It turns out Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t simply blowing smoke when he praised the Knicks prior to Wednesday night’s game at Madison Square Garden.
“The Knicks are a very talented team, they’ve taken injuries on. Any team that gets a couple starters out it’s going to be tough and then, depending on how your schedule is at that particular time, you have to take a look at that,” the coach said, in his typical spiel about opponents, regardless of record or quality. “This is a team that had a great season last year. When they’re healthy they’re going to be very, very dangerous.
“[Amar’e] Stoudemire is playing better and better, and they have a lot of guys that as they come back,” he went on to say. “[Tyson] Chandler gets back in there, it’s going to be a tough team. Any team that has Carmelo [Anthony] in it, they’ve got a chance. J.R. Smith, he started the season off, he missed some games, but he’s coming off an injury. He’s very talented. This is a good team.”
Either that or Thibodeau knew his undermanned Bulls (8-12) just didn’t have it going into the matchup, as their losing streak was extended to three consecutive games and nine defeats in the past 11 outings after a scoring-deficient second quarter led to a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback, but ultimately a 83-78 loss at the hands of New York (6-15), a team that was also struggling on the season.
After Mike Dunleavy (20 points, eight rebounds) opened the game’s scoring, the Knicks scored the next nine points of the contest, resulting in a Bulls’ timeout to halt the proceedings.
Both teams were short-handed on the evening — the wing tandem of Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng was sidelined, though All-Star center Joakim Noah (12 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots) suited up, while New York was missing starters Felton and Chandler, an ex-Bull — as well as mired in extended slumps, giving an air of desperation to the affair, especially with a report earlier Wednesday that Thibodeau is a rumored candidate to replace embattled Knicks head coach Mike Woodson next season.
But back to the actual game: Dunleavy continued to propel the Bulls, who stormed back with seven straight points to tie the game. This development was dampered, however, by starting point guard Kirk Hinrich picking up two early fouls, forcing second-year backup Marquis Teague to run the show.
The Bulls were able to remain afloat throughout the opening period and after a quarter of play, held a 17-15 lead, despite the scoring efforts of Anthony (30 points, 10 rebounds), who didn’t have to battle Deng, his All-Star small forward counterpart.
New York started the second quarter on a 19-0 run, regaining the lead and seizing control of the game, quickly making it a double-digit affair within the first five minutes of the frame. Buoyed by the interior play of Stoudemire (14 points, nine rebounds) —the oft-injured, former All-Star power forward scored eight points off the bench during the run, functioning as the second unit’s go-to scorer— the Knicks looked like the Atlantic Division-winning team they were last season, not the sad-sack bunch witnessed during this campaign.
Mercifully, a Dunleavy triple ended the disastrous stretch for the Bulls and they managed pick things up a bit toward the end of the period. Somehow, the Bulls went into the intermission facing a 46-32 deficit, a reasonable score considering their poor level of play on the offensive end of the court, which included 29-percent shooting from the field and a dozen turnovers in the first half.
After the break, the Knicks’ onslaught continued, as contributions from the Bulls’ interior tandem of Noah and Carlos Boozer (12 points, 12 rebounds) — as well as top reserve Taj Gibson (12 points, seven rebounds) — Noah’s fellow “Big Apple” native — wasn’t nearly enough to prevent a 20-point margin of separation from accumulating. But although they didn’t make much progress at first, the Bulls kept plugging away and following a series of New York miscues, they went on an 8-0 run the deficit to as little as 12 points before heading into the final stanza trailing, 68-54.
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The Bulls kept coming in the fourth quarter, diligently cutting into the lead and eventually getting the game back into the single-digit range on a Dunleavy three-pointer with 7:39 remaining, followed by an Anthony turnover and a Gibson alley-oop from Noah to make it a two-possession game, 72-66, with more than half of the period to play. Via a 12-0 run, the Bulls cut the lead to four points until an Anthony jumper ended the scoring spree.
But they didn’t let up, scoring six straight points and tying the game at 74 apiece on a Noah tip-in with 3:37 on the clock. The Knicks rallied, however, scoring on a Stoudemire jumper and after two free throws by J.R. Smith made it 78-74, in favor of New York, the Bulls called a timeout to strategize with 1:29 to go in the game.
A Bulls turnover, not the Bulls’ desired result, ensued and after a Knicks miss, a last-gasp opportunity with under a minute to play ended up being a shot-clock violation. Anthony left the door ajar by splitting a pair of free throws with 24.7 seconds left, but the damage was done.
After losing to the Eastern Conference’s two worst teams on consecutive nights, the Bulls are headed to Milwaukee — where they will take on the East-worst Bucks for the second time this week Friday night — to continue their short-handed stretch of four games in five nights, seeking out a reprieve from the worst stint of Thibodeau’s head-coaching tenure.