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Knicks 113, Bulls 94: “Closing time”

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Open all the doors & let you out into the world...

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The mating ritual of the frigate bird is as follows:

“Male frigatebirds have red kidney-shaped pouches on their chests that they inflate like balloons to attract girls. During mating season, the male sits on a nest and gyrates his puffed-up chest at the females flying overhead. When a female sees a male she likes, she lands beside him. However, copulation is often interrupted when other jealous males jump on the chosen partner and try to puncture his red balloon.”

Mating season is all about sealing the deal. Last night the Knicks closed a six-game homestand with a 113-94 win over the Chicago Bulls, your would-be balloon puncturers. A loss would have sent New York stumbling into a brutal six-game road trip on a two-game losing streak; instead the win capped a 5-1 homestand and moved them a game ahead of Atlanta for fourth in the Eastern standings. This game was hopefully a microcosm of how the season will end: a competitive affair ending with a flurry of success. If the Knicks can close out the regular season the way they did this game, they’ll enter the playoffs with a momentum no team will want to face.

As has been the case throughout the homestand the Knicks came out scintillating early. While Chicago couldn’t hit from the field or get to the foul line, the Knicks had no such troubles. Cue Julius Randle.

The Knicks went up 16 after a Julius longball; he poured in 14 in the first. As usual, RJ Barrett co-piloted, here with the nice deuce over an impressive young defender in Patrick Williams.

As always, any mention of Knick success would be incomplete without pointing out their defensive efforts, spearheaded as always by the noteworthy Nerlens Noel.

The lead grew even larger late in the frame, but in the second the Bulls opened with a 13-2 run to pull within two. New York would respond with a 9-0 run crowned by a Randle 3. I have only recently accepted that Randle knows what he’s doing when he drifts into those corner 3s. He really has made a bunch of these.

But while the Bulls would not win, and often don’t, neither did they quit. Hot on the heels of that Randle 3 was this booming response care of Coby White, who soon after split a double-team to find Williams open for a corner 3.

It was close at the half and would tighten up even more in the third. Noel was Samwise Gamgee to the Knicks’ Frodo, keeping them going when it would have been easy to stray from their quest: his steal led to Payton finding Barrett for a dunk, he finished an Elfrid Payton alley-oop and blocked Williams sometime into next week.

And yet at the tail end of the third Lauri Markkanen put the Bulls ahead, and the fourth began with the game very much hanging in the balance. Chicago’s bench was badly outscoring New York’s. I used the past tense because then Immanuel Quickley got going, leading the Knick reserves to a 19-9 pasting of the Bulls’ bench in the final quarter.

IQ scored 11 by the midpoint of the fourth, and fellow rookie Obi Toppin added his nightly fare of highlight bucketry and hope for the future.

Without Zach LaVine due to the COVID protocol, the Bulls didn’t have the horsepower to keep up once the Knicks pressed on the gas. RJ and Reggie Bullock each hit 3s, restoring the cushion of the opening minutes. 10 wins from 11 games and a 22-11 home mark: more signs of how far these Knicks have come. The journey only gets harder from here on out: a six-game road trip that peaks with four straight against superior teams, the last three home games of the regular season against three teams desperate for wins, and then the playoffs. We don’t know where this team is headed. Nights like this are a reminder of how far they’ve come.

Notes

  • Late in the game, Randle got a lot of 4-on-3 opportunities to create against a scrambling defense off of Rose drawing double-teams on pick-and-rolls 30 miles from the hoop. Randle’s had an unbelievable season shooting, but I really think his better angels are always pushing him to be a playmaker more than a scorer.
  • Late in the first half Noel took a 3 that rimmed in and out, only his third attempt this season. On New York’s next possession Payton hit from deep. I may have been less surprised by the former than the latter.
  • The Knicks nearly doubled the Bulls’ free-throw attempts, tripled their points off turnovers and stocks — steals plus blocks. They also committed a season-low four turnovers.
  • New York is 18-0 when leading at home entering the fourth quarter. There’s a balloon that may pop come playoff time.
  • More of the beauty of RJ’s improvement: watching this play and yelling from my couch at Nikola Vučević knowing he gave Barrett too much daylight here, followed by Barrett confirming that.
  • It’s 2:00 a.m. and I’ve been watching Magic Johnson videos for a while, hunting for a clip I can remember seeing but can’t locate, so just take my word on this: Magic came in for layups sometimes beginning his drive with the ball almost comically high up. He’d then bring it down before elevating it again as he rose to finish. Barrett seems to get tied up a lot or stripped when he drives at people on breakaways, and it seems to me he’s holding the ball too low when that happens.
  • Quickley must roll out of bed in the morning expecting to take two free throws. Man does he complain about every call.
  • I like to think I have a good imagination. I cannot for the life of me imagine IQ with any hairstyle beside this year’s. I really really can’t. I’ve tried.
  • MSG enjoyed showing clips of Tom Thibodeau berating RJ after he was beat twice on backdoor cuts. I do find Thibs’ incessant unhappiness amusing. But also it brought to mind a conversation I had this week on my Jacobin Sports pod with guest Tara K. Menon about the MJ/LeBron G.O.A.T. debate, and how one of the clearer themes to emerge in the debate is the idea that being a ruthless, negative person somehow makes for better athletes and coaches, and that somehow “wanting it more” determines or explains who wins. Maybe Thibs has mellowed; maybe he only erupts at players he knows respond to that treatment, or at least can endure it. I really do hope differentiation becomes as commonplace in how coaches work with players as it’s supposed to with teachers and students.
  • Alec Burks is back with the team but didn’t play. He’s listed as day-to-day.
  • Noel is now third in the league in blocks per game, after Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert. Color me fine paying him half of what it’d cost to keep Mitchell Robinson and investing the savings in pay raises for Burks, Bullock and Rose.
  • White was called for fouling Noel to impede him on a jump ball. He literally held Noel’s arm down. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Maaaad odd hi-jinx on jumpballs this season. More than I can ever remember. Assuming that my memory somehow can be trusted with such a random observation.
  • Thaddeus Young busted out a running skyhook on his first touch and I am here for that!
  • I have always prided my spelling abilities. It took me very little time to master “Antetokounmpo.” I still remember “Nikoloz Tskitishvili.” But after however many years, for whatever reason I can never remember how to say or spell Chicago guard Ryan Arcidiacono. So I give up. From now on he’s Ani DiFranco.
  • Ever wondered what Clyde would look like if he were a New York Yankee?

Quoth Grin and Barrett: “Closing time.” The Knicks closed the homestand with a win, the way you wanna close a homestand. Now they hit the road for two weeks with a chance to protect what they’ve spent months working toward: homecourt in the first round and their best shot at a shot to advance past the first round. Next game is Sunday night at Houston, pro’ly their last of the year vs. a non-playoff team. That’d be a good one to win.