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Knicks 125, Bulls 115: “Mitch Match”

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Sometimes you eat the bear.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

One night in grad school I took a date out to a place called The Shadow Lounge. It was dark — it was very dark — but in a way that created atmosphere rather than blacked it out. We had a few overpriced drinks and she started getting her stuff together. I considered the night well spent and began rationalizing why it was cool that she was leaving.

“You live near here?” she said.

“Two minutes.”

“Show me.”

I knew then I was in for a fun night. Spoiler: I was. I really, really was.

New York versus Chicago used to light up the NBA like a supernova. These days the energy is more mood lighting, but if you’re more participant than observer that just adds to the ambiance. Six Knicks hit double-figures as they led most of the way en route to a 125-115 win over the 10-losses-in-11-shmen-losses-in-eleven-they’ll-never-be-lowly-enough Bulls. It wasn’t just a win; it was a win driven in large part by parts we hope are large parts of a bright future. It was fun. It really, really was.

Reggie Bullock and Dennis Smith Jr. were out but Frank Ntilikina and Taj Gibson were back. Gibson jumped right back into his flow of dominant first-quarter production; he put up nine, with Mitchell Robinson adding eight. If NBA games were one quarter long, Gibson would be an All-Star; If they were four minutes long, he’s Anthony Davis. New York dominated the boards 16-7 in the opening frame, a trend they’d carry on all night. The opening minutes featured a lot of Julius Randle and Thaddeus Young. Your grandchildren may never believe that.

The Bulls took the lead back briefly in the second, but a 16-2 run to end the half capped by a Harden-esque RJ Barrett stepback 3 put the Knicks up 13 at intermission. The ball movement that was so pronounced when they had 28 assists Thursday in Philadelphia returned to the tune of 29 dimes last night. The dish of the night came courtesy of Moe Harkless.

The chasm was constant through most of the third, until Denzel Valentine — one of the great names in human history — scored Chicago’s final seven points entering the fourth to pull them within three. After a Coby White trey bounced high off the rim and in, back-to-back 3s from Kevin Knox and Wayne Ellington — who made a rare first-quarter appearance — put the Knicks up 101-93. Knox scored seven of his 12 in the fourth, his best game in a while. Ellington’s release was exquisitely quick.

Despite getting outscored by 27 from deep, one of the season’s most disappointing trends, the Knicks were a rare +7 from the foul line and completely dominant in the paint; 40 minutes in, they’d outscored the Bulls 60-32 there. Julius Randle scored nine in the fourth, and after he hit a pull-up and Harkless for at least the second time of late stole an inbound and laid it in, New York was out of reach for good.

Meanwhile, guess who earned MVP chants?

A team-leading and career-high 23 for Robinson, who I believe got the first MVP calls for a Mitchell since 1989 when an ex-Met won the award with the San Francisco Giants.

The Knicks led most of the night, were never really threatened and had gold-star performances across the board. Not gonna complicate things: this was just fun to watch.

Notes:

  • Fine play abounded. Barrett had 19 points on just 10 shots. Randle and Gibson put up 39 and 18. 12 and 6 for Knox. 10 assists for Elfrid Payton. 10 rebounds for Mitch. 55% from the field, 40% from deep.
  • Per Marc Berman: Robinson has a shot at breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record for field-goal percentage in a season. Entering the night, “[Mitch needs] 300 field goals made by season’s end, meaning he has to average 2.7 the rest of the way.” 11 baskets in this one.
  • Mitch also did a nice job contesting LaVine off the dribble when caught one-on-one and finished with 2 assists for the fourth straight game. Before that, he’d only had 2+ dimes four times all season and five times total last year. Robinson having improved his footwork defending guards and his passing is one of the better bits of news to come out of this season.
  • Pro’ly not unrelated: Mitch has played 25-32 minutes the past four games. He’d only managed that level of consistency once before this season.
  • Driving into contact, hitting the offensive boards and being aggressive afterward, attacking the rim: Knox’s energy was welcomingly bright. The degree of difficulty will climb quite a bit higher the next three games. Let’s see how he fares.
  • Is this the cutest moment this year?
  • Frank looked the part of a rising stock, too. Took shots he should be taking. Didn’t settle for life on the perimeter. A few pretty set-ups. Even took the free throw after a frustrated Zach LaVine got a technical foul.
  • There’s a lot of talk about Harkless fulfilling a childhood dream. Tonight the angle was the hometown kid making his first hometown start. Maybe Moe’s a mellow fellow. But that man does not look like he’s fulfilling a dream. He looks like Alex Burgess condemned to endless nightmares in Neil Gaiman’s Preludes & Nocturnes.
  • Gibson is from Brooklyn and Harkless from Queens. The Knicks should have at least one player from every borough. Gimme Kemba Walker from the Bronx. Mohamed Bamba from Harlem. The last Staten Islander I can find? A OAKAAKUYOAK who was once the victim of the strangest theft I ever saw.
  • There is no reason for Randle not to devote his offseason to mastering a sweeping sky hook. He’d average 25+ with that threat.
  • LaVine has the Vince Carter-esque ability to make shooting deep 3s look easy. Just a flick of the wrist. He reminds me of DeMar DerRozan on some bad Raptor teams, and before that Damon Stoudamire — gifted scorers on teams otherwise bereft of them, whose impact seems outsized because guys who can score 25 and not break a sweat always stand out on teams that otherwise drag themselves around like the Frankenstein monster.
  • LaVine and Coby White failed to score 30+ each for the third straight game. They’d’ve been the first Chicago teammates to do so since Chet Walker and Bob Love.
  • I don’t always get bothered by the Knick veterans playing more than the kids. Not a lot of the youngins have shown enough to earn priority minutes, and sometimes sink-or-swim drowns kids who just need a slower pace to acclimate. When I do get bothered is watching Knox repeatedly stuck in the corner and his only offensive roles seem to be shoot open spot-ups or dump the ball in to Bobby Portis in the post.
  • White is an early contender for the Ish Smith Award as the latest random player to perform inexplicably better against the Knicks than every other team.
  • I feel comfortable assuming Ryan Arcidiacono’s girlfriend has strong feelings about fair trade kefir, and that they sleep in matching pajamas.
  • While discussing the Knicks’ habit of getting killed on threes made versus threes allowed, Clyde Frazier said “Ironically [Marcus] Morris was their best three-baller...they traded him,” and at first it sounded like the other hundred thousand times Clyde uses a word more for its music than its meaning. But then I thought about it, and he’s right. The Morris trade was, from a certain point of view, ironic.
  • Clyde with a minute left: “Look at Payton. How he’s carrying the ball. Look at that. Look at that. Look at that!” Clyde may have been boozing and doozing a bit before tip-off. At one point he mentioned players like Robinson and Clint Capela going extinct like dinosaurs, but he couldn’t pronounce “extinct” and kept laughing and laughing at the analogy. He’s watched a lot of trash over the years. You’ve earned it, Clyde.

Quoth Walt Clyde Phraser: “Mitch Match.” Next game is Monday when the Knicks host the Rockets. The Knicks’ best win this year based on opponent winning percentage was when they beat Miami, currently at .633. Houston at .655 would be a new benchmark. Let’s see if the ball movement and team play can carry through against a legit contender. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.