[Thanks to Paddyfairview for today's game preview. We'll make this the open thread as well. And as a not-so-subtle reminder (though maybe quite late for tonight's action), use our partners if you want Chicago Bulls Tickets -yfbb]
Something amazing happened this week: the Bulls got interesting again.
I admit I've been lazily half-watching games and checking box scores out of something like religious guilt, sick of defensive effort issues and fourth quarter grinding halts on offense (not to mention Kurt's "Seniors' Night at the YMCA" act). But now i'm back on board*, and it wasn't the two game win streak (woo!) or Hurricane Jo that did it. All I needed was a good old reliable Rip Hamilton injury. No offense to Rip, since by now I've mostly forgiven him for being a Piston. But when he went down and Thibs elected to go with Belinelli as starter, the whole character of the team changed. With more Marco and more Jimmy, and a healthy dose of NateRob, we're a team with young, hungry guys who still have something to prove. There's still plenty of rickety old coots like Kurt and Carlos on the roster, but Rip seems like something of a mascot for the past-their-prime Bulls. Marco is the face of the up-and-comers, and as terrifying as that seemed a week ago, the dude's played pretty well. His 16 points in 40 minutes last night wasn't exactly prime MJ, but he did it on over 50% shooting, 33% from downtown, and posted a +12 in a game the Bulls only won by four. Not the shittiest thing ever. And it was his second good game in a row. Not that the Bulls are going to be better without Rip, but it's better entertainment. We're clearly not going to win a title as constructed, so why watch a half-assed version of last year's team? Play the young guys, and see if anyone is willing to part with a packet of peanuts for Rip at the deadline.
[*You can call me a "fair-weather fan" if you want, but requiring a career high in points AND rebounds from your starting center just to beat the Pistons by four is "freezing drizzle" at best.]
Now that I've wasted your time romanticizing the limited contributions of replacement-level players, let's talk Bulls-Knicks:
, and Amar'e is still suiting up in Armani, so on paper tonight's game looks pretty interesting. New York is coming off a twenty-point Melo-less win over Miami two nights ago, but this shouldn't be as intimidating as it sounds; Miami is famously lousy defending the deep ball, and the Knicks killed them from downtown. The Bulls are better in that respect, though New York's array of long-range shooters remains fearsome. The bigger problem for the Bulls will most likely be fatigue. The starters played heavy minutes last night in Detroit, and the team is playing its fourth game in five nights. Knowing Thibs, I don't think we should expect huge minutes from the bench to compensate, so get ready to feel sorry for is a game time decisionLuol Deng.
With all the injuries and returning former Bulls, the matchup game is a good one tonight. I am going to assume that Carmelo is out, because that's more fun:
POINT GUARD: Kirk Hinrich vs. Raymond Felton
...though there's nothing fun to say about Kirk Hinrich, except that perhaps he has played in a neighborhood slightly north of "atrocious" the last couple of games. Felton poured in six three-pointers and dished out seven assists thursday, and is averaging just under 16 & 7 this season. Whatever his deal was in Portland last year, he appears to be over it.
SHOOTING GUARD: Marco Belinelli vs. Jason Kidd
The Knicks have it made in the backcourt, with Jason Kidd living out his twilight years as a secondary playmaker and ace three-point shooter (49.1% on the season), playing a reasonable number of minutes with J.R. Smith (39.7% from downtown) waiting in the wings. I have a hard time imagining that he will be asked to chase Belinelli around, which means he'll probably just have to deal with Kurt on defense, so there's not much downside here. On the other hand, it's not as though any of these players are defensive stoppers, so Belinelli should have a legitimate opportunity to stretch his streak to three solid games.
SMALL FORWARD: Luol Deng vs. Ronnie Brewer
Yes, Ronnie Brewer returns to the UC tonight, and somewhere Paxson will be scowling about his headband. Ronnie's playing about the same number of minutes in New York, though he's somehow managed to put up a 40.1% mark from downtown, the prick. It will be good to see his crooked-armed mess of a jumpshot and his sneaky baseline cuts back on the UC hardwood, though Thibs and Lu should have a pretty good handle on how to lock him down. Letting Ronnie go might be the least-maligned decision of the Bulls' offseason (other than Nate), I suppose because of our collective optimism about Butler and our collective disgust with tentative-shooting wing stoppers, but I miss Ronnie already. He was a fun guy to watch, and it's too bad his talents mostly amounted to more sand on the beach.
POWER FORWARD: Carlos Boozer vs. Kurt Thomas
Kurt's been back to the UC since his Bulls days, but it's still fun to watch him battling his former teammates. He became unnecessary with the rise of Omer, but I guess in hindsight the dissolution of the Bench Mob began when he left. He doesn't play many minutes in NY, but he has started six games as Woodson has experimented with his lineups sans Amar'e. I don't project great things for Carlos going up against a frontline of Thomas and Chandler, and it won't get much better when he has to chase Rasheed Wallace out to the three-point line (though, after going 0-6 from downtown Thursday, maybe Thibs will elect to just let Sheed shoot). Obviously if Carmelo plays, we have an entirely different situation on our hands (part of me wants to see a Nate-Kirk-Jimmy-Deng-Noah lineup against the small-ball Knicks, though it isn't the part that likes pretty basketball).
CENTER: Joakim Noah vs. Tyson Chandler
It's been a while, but Tyson Chandler's a former Bull too, and he's panned out pretty damn well after a few uncertain years. By now you know his game - sets a mean screen, great roll man, crazy-high FG% but doesn't shoot outside the paint (except on a few hilarious occasions) - so I'm just going to dedicate this space to becoming the 400th person to say in print how AWESOME it was that Jo set career highs in points AND rebounds on the same night, putting up the Kevin Love numbers that we all knew he had hidden somewhere. He'll probably be exhausted tonight, but whatever, if he sleepwalks through this game, he earned it. Tyson's a great player, but we upgraded. I hope that performances like this will get Jo onto the All-Star team even in the absence of that center slot.
Not a lot left to say about the benches, except that it would be very nice to get some offense out of Taj tonight. We're going to have a lot of tired players and in order for the Bulls to win I think he'll need to step up on both ends of the floor. Duh.
Thibs trotted out yet another "we have more than enough to win" following the Rip injury, and at this point I can only stand in admiration of his colossal stubbornness. The guy is such a…..dick. In a good way, mostly. If he leaves Rose in for the last minute of another playoff blowout, I'm going to drive all the way to Chicago and kick him in the balls. But most of the time it's really pretty admirable the way he tells the media to get lost, without saying those words.
This one's a long shot, but if Melo doesn't play and the starters can dig deep, the Bulls might win it. If Melo plays and they're running on fumes, it could get ugly real quick. Here's hoping Belinelli keeps up the solid play and Noah BeastMode rolls on through the weekend.
Game's on WGN at 7. Head on over to Posting and Toasting and put those puffed-up Knick fans in their place.