NEW YORK – With all of the talk of the Miami Heat and their Big Three, and the Boston Celtics and their Fantastic Four, it was the Chicago Bulls who produced the likely Most Valuable Player (guard Derrick Rose), the probable NBA Coach of the Year (head coach Tom Thibodeau), and the best team in the eastern conference this season.
In a game that meant little more for them than simply playing for pride and continuing some good momentum, the New York Knicks, while resting star forward Amar’e Stoudemire, got a glimpse of just how good this year’s top seed in the East can be, in a 103-90 loss to Chicago at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, during the Knicks’ final regular season home date of the year.
Trailing 55-52 at halftime, Rose scored 11 of his game-high 26 points as the Bulls completely took over the game with a dominating 26-2 run to start the third quarter to win their eighth straight game and 27th in their past 31 contests since their last losing streak (which lasted just two games, in early February).
The Knicks responded with a 16-6 spurt to close the period, and then scored the first five points of the final quarter, to get back in the game, trailing 84-78, with 11:13 remaining.
But, with New York (42-39) already being cautious with Stoudemire’s sore ankle for the upcoming playoffs, and Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni resting starters Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups for much of the fourth quarter, New York was unable to compete down the stretch against Chicago, which is still fighting for home court advantage in the NBA finals, should the top-seeded Bulls ultimately meet with the San Antonio Spurs, the one seed in the West.
While the road to that championship round will run through Chicago (61-20) in the East, several potential pitfalls might await the Bulls, especially the aforementioned second-seeded Heat or the defending eastern conference champion, third-seeded Celtics.
But, while the overwhelming consensus might be that Boston should handle sixth-seeded New York fairly easily in the opening round of this year’s playoffs beginning this weekend, don’t count Thibodeau among those who necessarily shares that opinion.
Rather, after defeating the Knicks for the first time in three tries this season, Thibodeau stressed repeatedly, standing outside the Bulls‘ locker room after yet another victory, that he expects the Knicks-Celtics first-round meeting to be “a very tough series.”
Thibodeau’s estimation of the playoff matchup between New York and Boston is worth noting.
Although today’s Knicks are vastly different from when the Bulls’ coach was a Knicks’ assistant coach from 1996-2003, Thibodeau is a highly experienced, defensive mastermind at knowing how to slow down the current Celtics (and any other team).
He not only has made the Bulls into the top defensive team in the league while being tied for the best overall record in the NBA during his initial year as a head coach, but Thibodeau spent seven years as an assistant coach with Minnesota, San Antonio, and Philadelphia before joining the Knicks, and another four years as an assistant in Houston before acting as the Celtics’ associate head coach for three years.
While Thibodeau is well aware of the matchup problems that Boston’s stars (whom he coached himself) present, he believes that the Knicks will give the Celtics – as good as they still are defensively in Thibodeau’s absence – some difficulty as well.
“With Billups and Anthony, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense,” he said. “The way [the Knicks] shoot the three, if you don’t have a multiple effort mentality against them, you are going to give up open looks at the three-point line, and if they start making threes [as they normally do], it could be a long night for you.”
Particularly regarding Anthony, Thibodeau said, “You have to put a lot into your game-planning because he commands a double team in almost every area, whether it’s his post-up, his isolation, pick-and-roll, catch-and-shoot, he puts enormous pressure on you, so you have to game plan for him. You can’t just rely on [normal] defensive schemes [against him].”
He added, of the Knicks’ star who was out on Tuesday night, “Stoudemire is a tough matchup because of his quickness, his ability to face up at the elbow and shoot, and [putting the ball] on the floor [to] out-quick you.”
On Billups, Thibodeau said, “Chauncey has the ability [to hurt you] because of his pick-and-roll play, his poise, his ability to read things, [and] his post game. He’s a great free throw shooter, and he knows how to draw fouls. You have to be very, very disciplined against him.”
“And, it’s a lot more than just those three,” Thibodeau continued. “[Billups’ backup, Toney] Douglas is a terrific player, [forward] Shawne Williams has played extremely well, [starting rookie guard Landry] Fields has had a terrific season, so they have excellent talent.”
New York head coach Mike D’Antoni said that he is “pretty much settled” on his team’s playoff rotation, while adding, “We’ll look at the lineup and figure it out, but we’re feeling good. I think we are fairly confident and playing well. We have a couple of good weapons [Anthony and Stoudemire] and decent young guys that could step up.”
That mix of young, talented players along with a veteran core seems to be buying in toward working together toward what it takes to win in the grind of the NBA postseason.
A former NBA champion, Billups had some sound advice for his younger mentors like Douglas, who have yet to experience the NBA postseason. “It’s just no nonsense,” he said. “Come in, get work done, and we watch film. It’s all business. They will be able to adjust, they just have to follow all of the veterans. They will be fine.”
Representing the younger, more inexperienced part of the Knicks, Doulgas agreed, “They have been there, they have to lead us and we have to follow them, and we play together. We’ll be fine.”
Meanwhile, Thibodeau further complimented D’Antoni’s team, saying “[The Knicks] can put a lot of points up on the board, but the thing that I like about the way they play, is they play very unselfishly. I don’t think they’re given enough credit for that. The ball’s gonna hop, they’re gonna get good shots, and they’re going to keep a lot of pressure on you.”
Okay, so praising the Knicks’ prolific offense is one thing, but a coach like Thibodeau speaking highly of the Knicks’ often porous defense, as well?
Now, that’s as crazy as a New York-Chicago rematch in the Eastern conference finals this year.
But, Thibodeau’s the defensive guru, so his view is should be heeded, and yes, Knick fans, he actually respects New York defensively.
“I think they’re underrated defensively,” he said. “I think they’re much better [in that area] than they’re given credit for. They’re on the ball, they help well, Douglas puts a lot of pressure on the ball, Chauncey’s a smart body position type [of] player, Fields has been excellent, [Rony] Turiaf is an excellent defender, [Jared] Jeffries in an excellent defender. So, they’ve got more guys [who] can play defense and I think they’ve committed to it.”
As for Boston’s defense and the criticism they’ve been receiving for their overall mediocre play (including defensively) since a mid-season trade for forward Jeff Green, while giving up big man Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City?
“People are overlooking [that] when you make a trade like that,” Thibodeau said, “You have to get the new guys up to speed, and that’ll happen. They’ve got great, veteran leadership and they’ve got a great coach, so it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time.”
Not until at least next year, Knick fans are hoping.
However, even if that’s the case, there’s still the matter of contending with the group that’s been there for the Celtics, as Thibodeau pointed out, “They still can go back to their core guys. You can still put Rajon Rondo on the floor with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, and [Glen] “Big Baby” [Davis]. Those guys have played [together] in a lot of fourth quarters of big games. What they did with the trade is they added depth. Their bench is going to be better. It’s one of those trades that was very good for both teams.”
The Knicks, of course, have been in the same situation, with their own acquisition of Anthony, and giving up several young, talented pieces to Denver, in exchange.
While Thibodeau acknowledged the Knicks-Celtics parallels with post-trade growing pains, he also thinks that New York has gained a valuable belief in itself as a team while rebounding from a stretch of nine losses in ten games (including a six-game losing streak) with a seven-game winning streak (to secure the six seed in the East) prior to Tuesday night’s loss to the Bulls.
He said of the Knicks, “They’re similar in some ways to Boston,” he said. “They’re still a work in progress because [of a] major trade, but you can see that they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now and I think that bodes well for them… they’re playing at a very high level right now. It’s the way you want to go into the playoffs… They’re going to be tough.”
Coming from the likely 2010-11 NBA Coach of the Year, who knows New York’s first-round opponent extremely well, that should be enough reason to give Knick fans hope when the playoffs begin.
The Knicks ironically close out the regular season Wednesday night in Boston in a meaningless game (as far as the eastern conference standings) in which each team will rest a lot of regulars before the division rivals return to the same floor for real, for Game 1 of the first round this weekend.