Bulls nip Knicks in Garden party thriller

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Bulls nip Knicks in Garden party thriller

NEW YORKIt wasnt a Broadway play, but with all of Derrick Roses aerial acrobatics and a game that was entertaining throughout, basketball fans in the Big Apple were treated to a show Thursday night.

Rose (32 points, 13 assists), named an Eastern Conference All-Star starter earlier in the evening, thrilled an audience used to another guard representing Chicago making memories on a big stage, as he led the Bulls (19-6) to a 105-102 victory over the Knicks (6-14).

He was great from the start, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of his point guard. He got everybody involved early.

A back-and-forth contest right out of the gates, the atmosphere in the revamped Madison Square Garden suggested, despite the home teams disappointing start to the season, a prime-time matchup.

Knicks power forward Amare Stoudemire (34 points, 11 rebounds) and second-year swingman Landry Fields (17 points) were aggressive in the early going and as a result, received encouragement from the crowd, which was behind the duo that played so well a year ago, but were struggling in the current campaign scoring New Yorks first 17 points of the contest.

For the visitors, Rose focused on distributing at the outset and one of the prime beneficiaries was sharpshooter Kyle Korver (16 points), who knocked down three quick triples. Rose then began looking for his own shots and scored on a variety of drives and pull-up jumpers, propelling the Bulls to a 29-25 advantage at the conclusion of the opening period, following a late-quarter jumper by Knicks rookie guard Iman Shumpert (10 points), a native of Oak Park, Ill.

Just trying to make plays. Thats what I think I didnt do in the 76ers game. Making plays for others when people are trying to play that type of defense its kind of like a soft blitz, when I come off pick-and-roll, the big is staying with me until I pass the ball and then, when I passed to Joakim or Booz, they knew what they were doing and that makes the game easier, Rose said afterwards.

Backup point guard C.J. Watson (12 points) showed he was continuing to progress in his recovery from a right-wrist injury, building on Wednesday nights solid performance in a losing effort at Philadelphia and displaying his adeptness at both shooting from the perimeter and penetrating to the rim for crafty finishes, giving the Bulls a slim cushion.

You know when C.J. is in the game, hes going to give you his all. Score the ball, run the team, play defense. He plays great defense and I think thats what people sleep on, praised Rose. The people that we have on the bench, they come in, do more work sometimes than our starters. Theyre always ready, they respond great when guys are out and thats all we can ask for.

We hate losing. We have winners on our team. If we lose, the next game, for sure, we know that team is going to get our all that night, he continued. For sure, knowing that last night, thats a terrible game. Theyre a good team, the Sixers, and tonight, we were just trying to redeem ourselves with this game.

Meanwhile, Stoudemire continued to carry the Knicks offensive load in the close-knit affair while playing center former Bulls draft pick Tyson Chandler (nine points, eight rebounds), an offseason free-agent acquisition for New York, was catching a breather the position where he excelled prior to last years blockbuster Carmelo Anthony trade, in a second-unit lineup.

Speaking of Anthony (26 points, six rebounds), the East All-Star starter got somewhat untracked (though not in concert with Stoudemire, a major concern for the Knicks), but Chicagos offensive execution (plays were successfully run to set up open jumpers or favorable one-on-one opportunities), tough defense (exemplified by rookie swingman Jimmy Butler) and overall effort (native New Yorker Joakim Noah, in particular, stood out in this category), something highly scrutinized following a lackluster performance in a loss at Philadelphia the previous evening.

We always say, Youve got to find a way, and I think the good teams in this league find a way to win games. Ideally, youd like to count on both your offense and your defense, and on most nights, if you can be consistent with your defense, it gives you a chance to win on the nights when you dont shoot well. We were fortunate tonight because we were able to score the ball, but we know thats not the way youre going to have success over a long period of time in this league. We have to make the corrections to improve our defense, said Thibodeau.

It says a lot about our team. For the most part, this team will play hard every night and the thing to me that was disappointing about the Philly game was just the turnovers. But I love the resiliency of our team, the resolve of our team, the bounce-back ability of the team. We got great leadership from Derrick today and all our guys. The thing about this team is I think weve got a team of leaders. Its not any one particular guy. Its a whole group of guys, so I thought getting ready to play was a challenge and were looking at four games in five nights, and you can give yourself that excuse or you can find a way to win, and thats what I like about our team.

With their balanced, unselfish and opportunistic offense the guests had 10 fast-break points and nine second-chance points at the half and an aggressive mindset on the defensive end, the Bulls went into the break with a 55-44 lead, after an Anthony putback at the halftime buzzer.

Selfless offense continued to be the Bulls trademark after the intermission, as Rose orchestrated the show, setting up Korver, Noah (10 points, nine rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (16 points, nine rebounds) alike, when he wasnt creating for himself.

However, while the visitors were able to maintain their double-digit edge over the hosts, New York consistently went inside to Stoudemire and Chandler drawing Noahs fourth foul and cut into the deficit, as perimeter players Anthony, Fields and Shumpert also made contributions.

Rose briefly took matters into his own hands, scoring on two consecutive possessions when the hosts trimmed it to a two-point differential, before the Knicks used a trap to force the ball out of his hands, then narrowed the gap behind Anthonys potent scoring.

Anthony tied the game with under a minute left in the period, but after three quarters of play, the Bulls clung to a narrow, 77-75 edge.

With Watson alongside him to start the final stanza and assist with ballhandling duties to combat New Yorks double-team strategy, Rose went on a scoring tear, scoring the Bulls first seven points of the period, mostly on an array of floaters, soon coming to be his patented shot.

He was countered, however, by his counterpart in a No. 1 jersey, Stoudemire, who again stepped up his production with Anthony out of the game, though Roses show-stopping ability, which mesmerized the Garden crowd prevented the Knicks from overtaking their guests.

We stayed together. Were a team, where, in those types of situations, thats when we come together as a team and just try to fight through it. We still had a tough time with stopping them toward the end. They were hitting some great shots. Theyve got great players on their team. We were just trying to hold on to that lead, Rose explained.

I love playing here, man. The crowd really loves basketball, they love basketball and I just love the energy here. They love their team, they talk about you and all that. I love it.

It remained a close-knit affair as the game entered its stretch run when Noah made a huge block on Anthony shot inside, Butler, the rookie Thibodeau left him in the game for defensive purposes hit a pull-up jumper to make it a four-possession game, only to see Anthony match him to make it 101-98 with under a minute remaining in the contest.

Following a timeout, Fields scored to cut the deficit to a single point and the Knicks subsequently engaged in a late-game free throw exhibition, which the Bulls survived, though Anthony following Rose splitting a pair had to miss a game-tying three-point attempt at the buzzer to ensure the contest wouldnt go to overtime.

Finally hit a damn free throw. Thats what Im happy about. Hit one, so hopefully next time, I hit both of them, Rose joked. But just trying to stay positive, just trying to do anything to win. It was me passing the ball earlier in the game and that loosened everything up, and I was just hitting shots tonight.

Added Thibodeau: I think we have guys who have great will to win. I think they play for each other, so whenever we lose, were disappointed as a group, but we try to learn from every game, both when we win and when we lose. I think every game reveals something to you and you should try to learn, and understand, why youre winning and why youre losing, and I think this group does that.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.