When last the Chicago Bulls saw the New York Knicks, they had just finished throttling a Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks team at home, winning 93-85 just two days after the Knicks had visited South Beach and beat down the Miami Heat by 20 points.
Unfortunately, things are a little bit different this time around. First, the game is in NYC, where the Knicks are 11-1 this year. Secondly, the Knicks will have Melo back, whereas the Bulls could be without Taj Gibson, who suffered a foot injury in the Bulls' win over the Boston Celtics.
If Gibson can't go, the Bulls could be in trouble. The Knicks love to play small, with Melo playing de facto power forward, and Carlos Boozer has about as much ability to guard him as you do. Joakim Noah probably can guard Melo, in theory, but that leaves Boozer to check Tyson Chandler, and just ask the Brooklyn Nets how devastating the Knicks pick and roll attack with Chandler can be. (The answer is "very.")
Gibson would provide an excellent alternative to Boozer, as he's one of the best beg men in the game at defending perimeter players, but if he's out, that means the only backup big man available would be Nazr Mohammed, who has been established as a terrible basketball player by now. Alternatively, Tom Thibodeau could opt to go small in response, with Luol Deng shifting over to power forward, as he did for large segments of the first time these two teams played, after Taj was ejected in the third quarter.
The problem with that is Deng already plays superhuman minutes even with Taj around, so he'd basically have to never leave the floor. And that's going to be an issue down the stretch, assuming the game is at all close. Deng played 47 minutes against the Knicks last time, and that was with Gibson around for at least part of the game.
One thing that should be investigated — but won't be — is a lineup that features Jimmy Butler at power forward. One of the bigs plus Jimmy, Marco Belinelli and two of the point guards would work perfectly against the Knicks. The Knicks tend to play Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd together for chunks of the game, with Ronnie Brewer and Carmelo Anthony on the wing. Butler has shown himself capable of checking Melo in the past, and his work on the baseline and the offensive glass would push Melo enough to hopefully make him work and wear him down. Ideally, it would be a Noah/Butler/Belinelli/Teague/Robinson group, but the specifics aren't a huge deal.
The Knicks boast a top-flight offense and an average defense (2nd and 16th in the NBA, respectively), while the Bulls feature an amazing defense and a bad offense (2nd and 24th, respectively). If the Bulls can limit the Knicks' offensive attack, they should be in good shape, but they'll still need to score, which is never a given with this team.
Key Matchup: Luol Deng v. Carmelo Anthony
Melo's been playing like a potential MVP this year and the Bulls will likely need to limit him to have a chance. On the other hand, Deng needs to bring his offensive game tonight, or the Bulls' offense will implode and they'll get blown out.
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