Though lopsided in the final results, the season series between the Bulls (43-35) and Knicks (51-27) hasn’t lacked for entertainment value, and the trend continued Thursday night at the United Center, as New York’s 13-game winning streak ended at the hands of the Bulls, 118-111, in overtime.
Overcoming a sluggish start, formidable third-quarter deficit and the visitors rallying to send the game into the extra session, the Bulls proved their mettle by rising to the occasion to prevent another premier Eastern Conference opponent from continuing a well-chronicled run against them and began the process of, in the words of Tom Thibodeau, trying to “get right” before the postseason.
The streaking visitors, who came into the game even more undermanned than their hosts—New York had just nine healthy players and started a small lineup featuring lanky 6-foot-8 forward Chris Copeland (14 points) at center, which prompted the Bulls to utilize Carlos Boozer (13 points, 15 rebounds) in the middle —showed why they had been on such a tear as of late from the outset of the contest.
Carmelo Anthony (36 points, 19 rebounds), in the midst of a duel for the league’s scoring title with three-time reigning champion Kevin Durant, maintained his hot hand—one of the NBA’s best pure scorers, Anthony has averaged just upward of 40 points per game over the Knicks’ last five games—and helped propel New York to an early double-digit lead, as the Bulls were blitzed defensively and also struggled to muster up much offense as a counter to the onslaught.
After beginning the game in a 23-6 hole, a familiar sight to observers of their season, the Bulls regrouped behind the play of Marco Belinelli and Luol Deng (16 points, eight rebounds)—the All-Star returned to the lineup after missing two consecutive games with a right-hip injury, just in time to try to cool down Anthony, his power-forward counterpart on this evening, as both teams—to make it a single-digit affair, courtesy of an 8-0 spurt.
As the opening period approached its conclusion, Jimmy Butler (22 points, 14 rebounds) resumed his recent stretch of stellar basketball and Rip Hamilton (14 points), in his second game back after a 19-game absence made a timely contribution off the bench and after a quarter of play, the Bulls still trailed, by the much more manageable score of 30-23.
The Knicks, known for their long-range bombing, didn’t do anything to dissuade their reputation and with virtually no healthy big men available, the visitors opted to play small and launch long bombs, a trend that carried over into the second quarter.
Copeland, the guests’ de facto center, was effective, as was scoring-oriented point guard Raymond Felton (19 points), but the Bulls kept things close, as Butler, who seemingly grows more confident in his offensive ability by the day, gradually drawing the hosts closer.
Backup point guard Nate Robinson (season-high 35 points) came off the bench with his usual feast-or-famine, instant-offense approach and with the excitement he brings to the game, came the contentiousness that have typified the season series between the two teams—Anthony was hit with a technical foul, quickly followed by Robinson reciprocating the favor and later in the first half, Deng following suit—while the actual basketball being played remained in New York’s favor.
But with sixth-man extraordinaire J.R. Smith (28 points, 14 rebounds) making his presence felt, the Knicks held on to their sliver of breathing room and at the intermission, the Bulls remained behind, 59-54.
After the break, the visitors widened their margin of separation, building a double-digit advantage, as the Bulls struggled to get Boozer going on the interior, while Copeland, an longtime overseas journeyman prior to this season, was successful in utilizing his perimeter skills.
Things didn’t get any better for the hosts after Deng picked up his fourth foul and their guests’ lead further ballooned, with the trio of Anthony, Smith and Felton leading the way and aside from Hamilton’s efforts, the Bulls struggling mightily on the offensive end.
Back-to-back steals and uncontested fast-break dunks by Butler prevented the Knicks from running away with the game, as New York’s momentum was leveled off and the Bulls, subtly aided by gutsy plays from Kirk Hinrich, fought back to make it a single-digit affair.
Heading into the final stanza, a 9-0 run keyed by Butler led to the Bulls closing to within two points, 82-80, following a Robinson triple in the waning seconds of the third quarter.
A Boozer layup in the first minute of the fourth quarter tied the game at 82 apiece, and a Hamilton trey gave the Bulls the lead, completing the comeback from a 17-point deficit.
The energetic duo of Butler and Robinson helped the Bulls maintain their slim cushion, then acquire even more breathing room as the defense clamped down on Anthony, whom the Knicks heavily relied upon, but couldn’t escape the hosts’ intense focus.
As the game entered its stretch run, the host experienced one of their periodic offensive droughts at the worst possible time and trigger-happy New York capitalized, bombing away from long range and cutting it to a two-point game on a Felton leaner with 1:47 remaining before Anthony knotted it up at 105 with a pair of free throws with 14.5 seconds left.
Putting their hopes in Deng’s hands, the Bulls held the ball for the a potential game-winner and although the All-Star missed, after a timeout, an Anthony jumper at the regulation buzzer was off the mark, sending the contest into an extra session.
In overtime, a Robinson three-point play opened the period’s scoring and the Bulls didn’t turn back as Deng joined the diminutive scorer in carrying the home team’s offensive burden.
New York’s frustration was evident—Smith picked up a technical foul—but the Knicks could do nothing about the impending result and the Bulls’ reputation as the team that puts long winning streaks to a halt was cemented.