Despite a late scare, the Chicago Bulls continued their dominance over the New York Knicks on Friday night. New York rallied in the final minutes to close to within five, but couldn’t finish the comeback in a 108-101 Bulls win.
These four elements stood out in Chicago's 20th victory of the season:
1. The Bulls could win a playoff series even without Derrick Rose
To be fair, this statement is more an indictment of the quality of the Eastern Conference than a proclamation of Chicago’s rise. Still, the fact remains that the Bulls have won road games against Miami and New York (the conference’s putative top two seeds) in the space of a week.
Chicago’s defense remains strong enough to keep them in the game against even elite opponents, and the offense—held together with duct tape though it is—has gotten the job done. Obviously, the Bulls will be a dramatically better team with even a partial-strength version of Rose, but the former MVP won’t be joining a lost cause when he does return from his knee injury.
On the other hand…
2. If anything happens to Luol Deng, Chicago is sunk
So much of what the Bulls can do on defense starts with Deng’s ability to lock down the opponent’s top scoring threat, as he did for most of Friday night against Carmelo Anthony. On top of that, Deng is both the Bulls’ leading scorer and their most versatile offensive player, capable of overpowering smaller foes in the post as well as dominating from the perimeter.
The dark side of Deng’s sensational season is that, for the second year in a row, he’s playing more minutes than anyone else in the NBA. Even in his physical prime at age 27, Deng has to be feeling the toll on his body of going 40.2 minutes every game—and if that toll turns into an injury, the Bulls will be crippled on both ends of the floor.
3. The Knicks desperately need to get their lineup back to full strength
For large swaths of Friday’s game, New York had either Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith on the floor with four other guys waiting for Anthony/Smith to do all the scoring for them. A healthy Amar’e Stoudemire will certainly help, but he’s far from himself yet (five points in 19 minutes Friday).
The absence of Raymond Felton is doing at least as much damage to New York as Stoudemire’s sluggish play, because Jason Kidd has very little gas left in his tank at age 39. Getting Felton back from his broken finger will not only give the Knicks a more dynamic distributor, but also a legitimate scoring threat at the lead guard spot.
4. Steve Novak is New York’s version of Kyle Korver
The Knicks have gotten a lot of bench mileage out of Novak the last two seasons, and he earned his playing time by leading the league in three-point shooting (.472) a year ago. However, as the Bulls know very well, a three-point sniper is only useful if you can keep him in the game.
Against Miami in the 2011 Eastern Finals, Tom Thibodeau was forced to stop playing marksman Kyle Korver because there was no one on the floor for the Heat whom Korver was capable of guarding. Novak had much the same deer-in-the-headlights look in defending the Bulls on Friday, and the Knicks may regret their reliance on him when the postseason does roll around.