NEW YORK — All Derek Fisher could do was plead for patience after his first game as an NBA head coach went about as poorly as he could have feared.
“We’re going somewhere, but at the beginning of where we’re going, it’s going to be difficult to get wins,” a somewhat dejected yet confident Fisher admitted after the Chicago Bulls (1-0) dismantled the New York Knicks (0-1) with Fisher’s boss, new team president Phil Jackson, looking on at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Chicago’s 104-80 win was New York’s second-worst season-opening loss in the Knicks’ 68-year history, eclipsed only by a 101-72 home defeat to Philadelphia, on October 31, 2000.
“We’re going to have to fight really, really hard to win games,” Fisher said candidly. “It won’t be because we’re executing perfectly and we’re playing perfect defense.”
Only two Knicks scored in double figures as New York struggled to master its newly-taught triangle offense, made famous by Jackson when he coached the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA-record 11 combined titles. Five of those came with Fisher running the point for the Lakers.
Star forward Carmelo Anthony — who passed on a better roster and considerably less money from Chicago, to return to New York as a free agent over the summer — led the Knicks with 14 points on just 5-of-13 shooting in just under 29 minutes before sitting out the final quarter. Forward Amar’e Stoudemire finished with 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds, but missed four of his last five shots after making his first four field goal attempts.
The other end of the floor was just as bad for the Knicks, as the Bulls had six scorers in double figures, with half of those coming off the bench to mirror the production of a trio of Chicago starters.
Former Lakers star, forward Pau Gasol, had 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds in his first start for the Bulls and was complemented by Chicago’s starting backcourt of Derrick Rose (13 points, in his first regular season game since November 22, 2013) and Kirk Hinrich (12 points).
Off the bench, Taj Gibson scored a game-high 22 points (making all but two of his dozen shots), while Rose’s backup, Aaron Brooks, had 13 points and a game-high six assists, and rookie forward Doug McDermott matched Hinrich’s 12 points.
With Stoudemire hot early, New York jumped out to an 8-2 lead, and went up 16-11, after Chicago tied the game at 8-apeice. But five straight points from Brooks, on a driving layup and a 3-pointer, put the Bulls up for good, 21-20, in the final minute of the opening quarter — a period that ended on an 11-2 Chicago run, and with the Bulls ahead, 24-20.
“Tonight, we got off to a solid start, but it’s difficult to sustain that when you’re still growing in confidence about who you are and what you can do,” Fisher noted. “We’re not fully confident that we can stick to what we are learning new and not revert back to some of our old habits. That will change with time.”
A 16-8 second-quarter run extended a seven-point Chicago edge to 49-34, with 3½ minutes left in the first half. A pair of Anthony free throws trimmed the lead to eight points, but a Gasol 10-foot jumper at the first-half buzzer pushed the Bulls’ lead to 53-43 at the break.
Leading by 13 in the third quarter, a Hinrich trey, followed by a jumper and a dunk by Gibson swelled the lead to 74-54, with 4:08 left in the period, and New York never got closer than 19 points the rest of the way.
“They got that separation and we never recovered,” starting guard Iman Shumpert (five points on just 2-of-9 shooting) said. “But one thing we can’t do, is we can’t just die like that. I thought our energy really died off. That’s embarrassing.”
Chicago took a commanding 84-60 advantage into the fourth quarter and ballooned its lead to as much as 35 points on two separate occasions, the first at 100-65, by the midpoint of the period.
One thing that impeded the triangle offense from operating at a better efficiency was the absence of starting point guard Jose Calderon, whom the Knicks acquired via an offseason trade with Dallas.
Calderon was expected to start, but was scratched about an hour before tipoff with a strained calf. Second-year point guard Shane Larkin, who joined New York from Dallas, with Calderon, became the answer to a trivia question when he scored the initial points of the Jackson-Fisher era on a floater in the lane, to put the Knicks up, 2-0. But Larkin only scored another four points and finished 1-of-5 from the floor, although he avoided a turnover and recorded three assists.
“That obviously changes things when your starting point guard goes out an hour or so before the game, but that wasn’t the reason why we didn’t win tonight,” Fisher said.
What hurt the Knicks most was their inability to keep the Bulls out of the paint, where Chicago held a sizable 42-28 scoring edge. The Bulls also attempted nearly twice as many free throws (30-17) as the Knicks while outscoring New York, 25-15, at the foul line, where Gasol and Rose each went 7-for-8.
“It was really their interior presence that caused us problems,” Fisher acknowledged.
Despite starting just 3-for-10 from the floor, Chicago still finished at a solid 50.7 percent (36-for-71), while New York was held to just 36.5 percent (31-for-85) from the field, including a paltry 17.6 percent (3-for-17) from behind the arc.
“I thought Chicago did a great job of taking away a lot of the options… and what the triangle is really about,” Anthony said.
Shrugging off any consideration of regret about not accepting Chicago’s offer over the summer, Anthony added, “Tonight was a learning process… we didn’t react well, but we’ve got to learn from that.
“I’m not embarrassed… we didn’t play well… we will get better. I believe that, I know that. And we’ve got another shot at it tomorrow night.”
That chance comes on the road, on Thursday night, against the Eastern Conference preseason favorite Cleveland Cavaliers, who will play their own season opener while welcoming back their native son, LeBron James, after his four-year hiatus from his hometown to pursue the championships he wasn’t able to win before leaving for Miami.
While that’s a much anticipated moment for James and the Cavaliers, Anthony has other concerns.
“I’m anxious to see myself, how I’m going to bounce back and how we’re going to bounce back,” he said. “I’m not worried about Cleveland, what LeBron and them guys have going on over there. I’ve got to figure out what’s going on over here with the New York Knicks.”
As for New York’s new head coach fishing for some early answers, persistence is key.
“The first five minutes of the game, our guys looked good and were enjoying playing the game together,” Fisher said. “But hopefully, five minutes will turn into 10 minutes, into 12 minutes, into two quarters, into four quarters. That’ll take a few days, weeks, months, who knows? But we’re going to keep working at it, I can guarantee you that.”