When you witness a Kevin Knox sighting in the 1st half, it can only mean one of two things: the Knicks are up big, or the Knicks are down big. And in the case of Thursday night’s home game against a really solid Chicago Bulls team, it was the latter. While the game was close for the first seven or so minutes, by the time the first quarter was over, the Knicks were down 37-19. With 4:14 left in the 1st, Taj Gibson picked up two quick technical fouls to get ejected (after just three minutes of action).
The offense was a disaster with multiple turnovers, something you can’t do against a Bulls team that loves to run out in transition with it’s athletic guards. The Bulls also displayed the type of smooth and quick ball movement that Knicks fans envisioned their own team executing before the season began. This led to some wide open three-point looks while DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine both went to work showing off an array of moves that had even Knicks fans impressed. While the Knicks didn’t make up any ground in the second quarter, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. In a night where NBA fans were reminded that anything can happen (see the Thunder vs. Grizzlies game), going even in the second quarter was a step in the right direction and big in the grand scheme of things as it kept the Knicks in the game.
LaVine and DeRozan continued their barrage of spin moves, athletic finishes and pull-ups, most of which were contested, which kept the Bulls rolling in a very comfortable fashion. The Los Angeles native and former Raptor put on a masterclass on making tough shots. Burks did a pretty good job on him on a lot of his shots but DeRozan got to his spots, rose up and used that patented leaping ability and high release to score in bunches, something we’ve seen him do for many years.
For the Knicks, though, the offense finally started to come alive. Randle got to work scoring 9 of his 30 points in the second frame. The buckets came off the Knicks pushing, something we’ve all wanted them to do more, and off Randle just being more decisive and aggressive going towards the rim. Outside of Randle, it was Alec Burks of all people who somehow managed go to the free throw line eight times to get himself going. Even with the positives on offense, the Knicks still found themselves down 18 at halftime.
With the Knicks continuously showing poor performances coming out of halftime this season, it was a very concerning spot to be in. The Knicks were one bad stretch away from letting the game get away. Instead, it was the Knicks that made the move in the third. With the Bulls up 74-57, Immanuel Quickley knocked down a pull-up three. As he has done multiple times in his short tenure with the Knicks, he ignited the crowd and his team to go on a big run. Just a minute later, Evan Fournier hit a transition three to cut the lead to nine. Another minute later, Mitchell Robinson, who had struggled defensively against Nikola Vucevic, came up with a huge block on LaVine to start a fast break that led to a Julius Randle dunk. With the lead all the down to seven, the Knicks crowd was on there feet with defense chants mirroring the intensity of a playoff game. With just over six minutes left, Immanuel Quickley went on a quick 6-0 run by himself to close the gap to three.
At this moment, it felt like this could be one of those games. And we all know what I’m talking about. Those games where the team comes out slow, shots aren’t falling while the other team is making everything. Then something clicks. The energy is through the roof, the ball moves, shots are falling, guys are getting on the ground for loose balls, and the crowd is going ballistic. The game was far from over but the Knicks had battled back and this was something that you could always count on Thibodeau’s teams on doing, fighting until the final whistle blew.
The rest of the game was a hard-fought, back-and forth affair. The Bulls relied heavily on the aforementioned DeRozan and LaVine while the Knicks went to their star, Randle, to close the game out. DeRozan had an impressive and 1 bank shot from the left elbow to extend the lead to seven, but then we saw Obi Toppin’s growth as he backed a defender down for a tough post-up bucket. Burks tied it shortly thereafter by knocking down a 3 in Lonzo Ball’s face, only to have DeRozan pull up for a tough contested mid-range jumper over Robinson. Rose and Randle would come back with tough baskets of their own but then Vucevic, who we had mentioned had been burning Robinson on pick-and-pop threes, joined the act.
The playoff-like game came down to the wire with the game tied at 111 with just under a minute left. Randle seemed to get a bit rushed in a move going right and Alex Caruso, the unsung hero of the Bulls season, came up with a big steal that led to LaVine being fouled on a dunk attempt. It was reminiscent of the foul Durant got on a missed dunk attempt, and it hurt but Randle cannot turn the ball over there. Rose missed a somewhat contested three on the other end and DeRozan closed it out with a side step layup.
Moral victories can be overvalued. In a culture and society that values winning and end results, a loss is a loss. That being said, not all losses are created equally. I thought the same thing when the Knicks lost the Bulls on November 21st, and I also thought the same thing after the loss against the Nets. While these losses sting and will still go down as losses, it’s at least apparent that the team is paying better. This is no longer the same team that lost to the Orlando Magic twice. The starting lineup looks better, even though the 1st quarter may suggest otherwise, the bench is still solid, and the 3rd quarters are getting a little bit better. On top of that, the defense, something that the Knicks really relied on last year, has gotten better and possibly more important than any of that, Julius Randle, the Knicks lone All-Star, is finally starting to look a bit more like last season’s iteration of himself.
Randle was great for most of the game, attacking a slower Vucevic by blowing past him without hesitation and then using his strength against smaller and weaker guys. Unlike the Randle we saw earlier this season, he was decisive, aggressive and patient all at the same time. Now, the turnovers and the misses free throws stick out like sore thumb and they need to be cleaned up for the Knicks and Randle to considered good or even great again. That being said, he isn’t why they lost the game as the Knicks would not have been in it without him.
This doesn’t mean the Knicks are where they want to be or need to be. The team is still wildly inconsistent. They’ll put together stretches where they look like a great team on both sides of the ball but also give up quick runs and usually have 1 quarter where they lose the game. Randle is on his way back but still needs to put together performances like this on a more consistent basis before they can say he’s the player they need him to be. RJ Barrett, who sat Thursday night’s game out, isn’t even close to the player he was at the end of last year or at the beginning of this year and that’s still a concern. Rose has been good for the most part but he isn’t necessarily young and Fournier has been inconsistent for much of the year. That means the Knicks may have to continue to ask a lot out of Burks and Quickley, who are both capable but have never been asked to do this much game in and game out for a contending team.
Fans will need to come to terms with the fact that the team is still a work in progress. But the past few games, wins and losses, can be used as evidence that the team is doing just that, progressing. The schedule will ease up a bit eventually and fans can rest easy knowing that the eastern conference is still up for grabs. But as the Bulls reminded fans tonight, these games won’t be easy and after starting off the season on the wrong foot, it will be a tough uphill battle. Unfortunately, close losses like this one and the last one could very well come back to bite them come April.