Friday, December 21, 2012

Game #25 Preview, Bulls-Knicks: King of the Hill, Top of the Heap

Let's. Play. Ball.
Chicago Bulls (14-10) @ New York Knicks (19-6)

 (HT: not sure who created this thing, but I saw it via this
tweet...whoever you are, you are awesome)

The Opponent 
After a tumultuous offseason, the 2012-13 season began and Jeremy Lin was not a New York Knick. Instead, the Knicks plunged headlong into the season with 39-year-old Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, fresh off a catastrophic season in Portland (where he couldn't seem to get back in shape post-lockout), as their top point guards. 

And, wouldn't you know it, things have worked out just fine for the Knicks, who are still wanting the services of Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert. The Knicks appear to be a legitimate title contender for the first time since 1999, when they last appeared in the finals against San Antonio. It's been such a charmed season for the Knicks that they have even managed to unearth Rasheed Wallace and put him to good use. Unfortunately for Sheed, a left foot injury has sidelined him for the last three games, and I wouldn't bet on him playing tonight. Laugh if you must, but the Knicks' frontcourt is already sort of thin, so losing Sheed is not an insignificant blow. I guess you could say there's a...need for Sheed. I'll show myself out now.

Despite what at the time seemed like a potentially foolish decision to let Lin walk, the Knicks have soldiered on, playing an exciting and effective brand of ball. Carmelo Anthony has missed a little bit of time due to injury, but he has otherwise been having a MVP-worthy season thus far (28.0 ppg, 26.4 PER).

However, the Knicks haven't gotten to 19-6 by virtue of Anthony's play alone; the Knicks have been at or near the top of the league in 3-point shooting all season, which should provide a depressingly stark contrast with the Bulls' own horrific shooting from beyond the arc. The Knicks are currently third in the league, shooting 40.4% from downtown as a team. Anthony is shooting a sterling 46%, while Jason Kidd, who hasn't exactly been known for his outside shooting throughout his career, is hitting 45% on about 5 attempts per game. 

Of course, leading gunner Steve Novak is shooting 44% and is a classic FIND THE SHOOTER guy. The Bulls cannot afford to let him settle into that corner spot he likes so much, or he will kill the Bulls all night. Novak was out the other night against Brooklyn with flu-like symptoms, but I would imagine that he'll be ready to go tonight.

Raymond Felton, who I've always kind of liked for some reason, is having a very nice bounceback season (15.9 ppg, 6.6 apg). Unlike Rajon Rondo, Felton does have an outside shot to threaten his defender with, and so Kirk et al will have to respect that while also keeping the former Tar Heel in front of them.

The Knicks started out the season playing lights out defense, allowing less than 90 points in six of their first nine games. Since the, the Knicks D has loosened up a bit, giving up over 90 in 11 of its last 16 games (100+ in six of those games). New York is currently 10th in the league, giving up 96.2 points per game.

The Knicks were not able to handle Jeremy Lin on Monday and Deron Williams had a solid double-double on Wednesday in a Brooklyn loss (16 pts, 10 assists); unfortunately, the Bulls do not have a point guard of the caliber of either of those guys. Well, they do have a guy better than Lin, Felton and Kidd combined times infinity, but he is busy rehabbing his knee.
Points of Concern 

Defensively, it all starts up top for a number of reasons. Penetration by Knicks guards might as well be an actual bell, tolling for thee. With Novak chilling in the corners waiting to blow dart 3-pointers into your neck like a ninja and Tyson Chandler hanging around the basket for lobs, the Bulls cannot afford to let Felton --and, fergodsakes, Kidd-- get into the lane with regularity. Anybody that watched the New York-Brooklyn game the other night saw what a dunkfest it was for Chandler. It wasn't much different for the Bulls against the Clippers, when Lob City reigned supreme in the UC

Carmelo has been pretty much unstoppable all season, and the Bulls will need Deng/Butler to really bring it. Butler had some success against Carmelo that one time, when Butler basically shut Carmelo down in the fourth quarter in what became a 3-point win. This probably sounds like I'm entering Uncle Rico territory here, but unlike unlike Uncle Rico we have visual proof of Butler being good at something. Just stay with him, don't fly out of the picture when he jabs and challenge the shot as best you can and hope he misses. After going to the game at the Garden this past April, I still have nightmares of Carmelo nailing shots over the outstretched hands of Bulls defenders.

Last season, Carmelo shot 55% from the field and 63% from three with Luol Deng on the floor*. If that happens tonight, well, hamburgers. 

With Jimmy Butler on the floor at the same time** as Melo (i.e. ostensibly matched up on him), Melo only shot 29% from the field (sample size caveats, yada yada yada). Butler obviously doesn't give you even a sliver of the offensive capability that Deng does, but maybe Thibs ought to consider playing the youngster a little bit more in this one.

*22-for-41 from 2, 5-for-8 from 3.
**I'm not sure why Marquis Teague's picture is there instead of Butler's on that player comparison generator, but whatever.

What Needs To Happen 
  •  Kirk Hinrich needs to exist. Please. We need something, anything from our starting point guard. It's getting to the point where I'd suffer Nate Robinson's terrible defense and make him the starter if it were up to me. Of course, this will never happen. 
  • Offensive glass. Simply put, the Bulls probably won't be able to keep up if the Knicks are even somewhat on from outside. The best shot they have is turning this into an ugly Big Ten-esque slugfest. Limiting possessions and more importantly winning battles on the offensive glass will give the Bulls the buckets they won't otherwise get in first chance half court sets. The Knicks are not a good offensive rebounding team but are one of the best in the league on the other end, only allowing 10 offensive rebounds per game and maintaining a defensive rebounding percentage of 74.5% (6th in the league). In short, Joakim Noah needs to win more battles than he loses against Chandler or the Bulls are toast. 
  • FIND. THE. SHOOTER. As always, pace and perimeter defense go a long way toward preventing an opponent's top gunner from getting good lucks. If the Bulls take good shots and don't turn it over, the Knicks won't have many shots at finding Novak for open transition treys. Likewise, Bulls guards need to keep Felton out of the lane, as the lob to Chandler is always an option for them at that juncture of a play.
Useless Prediction Time 
  • The Bulls are better off letting Nate Robinson do his thing; Hinrich simply does not possess the playmaking ability to be an asset, even against a relatively unathletic PG duo like Felton and Kidd. I guess this isn't so much a prediction as it is a hope, dream, aspiration, a raising withering in the sun-like glance of Tom Thibodeau. 
  • Tyson Chandler doesn't quite get 16 boards like he did the last time the Bulls went to MSG, but he will do enough to keep Noah from truly killing the Knicks. 
  • Tyson Chandler will eye laser at least two Bulls players, with Vladimir Radmanovic probably being one of those guys...poor RadMan :(. 
  • It will be close entering the fourth, but if the game is close down the stretch, I don't see this Bulls team outdueling Carmelo in the Garden. Knicks 95, Bulls 86.

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