What a difference four games can make. The New York Knicks (14-13) are riding high after winning a season-best four in a row. Since Tom Thibodeau reduced his rotation to nine players and unleashed Deuce McBride with the second unit, New York has climbed to sixth place in the Eastern Conference and assembled the ninth-best defense in the league.
Like many, I rode the “Fire Thibs” choo-choo before the recent turnaround. Has New York’s success left soot on my face? Nope. If our collective grumbling helped to apply enough heat to Thibodeau’s seat that he finally made positive changes, then all those articles calling for his job were justified. And if his team reverts to their pre-December, hot trash status, count on “Fire Thibs” articles to pop up again as fast as dandelions on a summer lawn.
This week our resurgent, fun-to-watch-again heroes fly to Chicago for a double helping of the Bulls (11-15).
Chicago, the team that went 46-36 and lost to the Bucks in the first round of last year’s playoffs, sits 11th in the East and is sliding. Blame injuries. Alex Caruso won’t play against the Knicks on Wednesday, and Ayo Dosunmu is day-to-day. Zach LaVine has missed time with a tricky knee, playing 22 of 27 games. And who knows when Lonzo Ball will play basketball again?
Unlike the Knicks, Chicago hasn’t yet found a pomace to staunch the bleeding. The Chi-Boys have lost three of their last five, including a wild overtime game that the Hawks won on a miracle shot. Some will root for Chicago’s downfall in hopes that it makes two-time All-Star LaVine available for trade. Not me. I root for their downfall due to an unremitting hatred for the Bulls.
Tip-off for tonight’s game is 7:30 p.m., cattle rustlers.
Jalen Brunson sprained an ankle in New York’s throttling of the Kings on Sunday and is questionable for tonight’s tilt. The Knicks have not declared who the replacement starter will be if Jalen sits, but my money’s on Immanuel Quickley—unless Thibs dusts off Derrick Rose for one more chance to wow in front of his hometown crowd.
The Bulls are dubious at lead guard, too. Either Coby White or Goran Dragić could start with Caruso out and Dosunmu questionable. In a November 2019 game, the then-rookie White shot 7-of-11 from downtown against the Knicks. Coby has never repeated that potency against New York and is a career 36% three-point shooter, but I still get flashbacks when I see that twerp receive the ball behind the arc.
Zach LaVine has averaged 21.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in his ninth NBA season. The 27-year-old is playing a heavy load of 34.2 minutes per game, but his stats are his lowest since 2017-18, his first year in Chicago. I have heard that his knee is not right. If that’s the case, the Knicks should absolutely steer clear. Besides, would LaVine want to play again for Thibs, who, as coach and GM in Minnesota, traded him to Chicago? Seems unlikely that he’d want a second bite at Thibodeau’s apple; he’s a different genus of cat than Taj Gibson and D-Rose.
Tonight will be LaVine’s first trip to the Quentin Grimes rodeo. If QDot ropes and saddles the two-time All-Star, that should silence all the trade speculation about Zach. The Knicks already have their shooting guard, thanks very much.
DeMar DeRozan has averaged 26 points, five rebounds, and 4.8 assists this year. The 33-year-old genius of the mid-range was a hero to young RJ Barrett. In seven career games against the idol, the admirer has averaged 18.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. Count on the Maple Mamba to be motivated to prove his mettle again tonight.
Mostly back in our good graces, Julius Randle has averaged 25.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and four assists in his last 10 games. His scoring efficiency and distribution skills have been excellent of late. If he can resist the intoxicating lure of ill-timed passions, Julius could still turn this into a special season.
Challenging Randle tonight will be Patrick Williams (6’7”, 215lb), who has averaged 9.4 points, four rebounds, and one block this year. In his third season since being drafted fourth in 2020, P-Dub has doubled his three-point shooting volume to three attempts per contest and is converting 46% of them.
Mitchell Robinson has officially unlocked beast mode. Over his last five games, Sir Lobster has averaged 9.8 rebounds, 6.6 points, and 1.4 blocks while committing only 2.6 personal fouls. It deserves repeating: in 26 minutes against Atlanta, Mitch had ZERO fouls, 10 boards, eight points, two assists, and a plus/minus of 17. Sure, he recorded six fouls in 19 minutes in his last game against the Kings, but Mitch did so with 12 points and nine rebounds and made both free throws, all on a sore ankle.
This season, Nikola Vučević is producing 16.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.8 assists nightly for the Bulls. In his career against the Knicks, Vooch has scored 19 points and 11 rebounds and shot 42% from deep, and he’s averaged more than 20 points in games against Mitch. Not tonight!
Chicago ranks eighth for defense, just ahead of New York. Alex Caruso, with his 2.9 steals per game, contributes significantly to their off-ball effectiveness. Even with A.C. sidelined by injury, tonight’s game should be a low-scoring affair.
The Bulls have a 126-113 record against the Knicks, including some classic games. This one might not reach legendary status but should be a gripper, with the Knicks pulling away in the fourth for a double-digit victory. No last-second Barrett-buzzer-beaters necessary.
United Center. Chicago, IL. Wednesday. 7:30 p.m. ET. Slaughter ’em, Knicks!