With the 44-14 Bulls' season series against the 2nd-place 35-22 Pacers unfinished, their magic number to clinch the Central Division and homecourt in the first round of the playoffs is now at one after the Bulls handled the Knicks 98-86 at the United Center on Tuesday.
After turning the ball over 21 times to the same team in a loss on Sunday, the Bulls held that number down to 12 on Tuesday -- including zero in the fourth quarter. Carlos Boozer led the team with four; and seeing that two were "lost balls" and one an offensive foul, it's easy to see that the Bulls logged a monstrous 109.8 Offensive Rating with great ball movement, as 69.2% of their buckets were assisted.
As much well-deserved criticism the Knicks have received for their defense, they're now 4th in the NBA, allowing only 100.4 points-per-100 possessions and leading in turnovers forced. The footwork isn't the greatest, but Tyson Chandler manning the paint allows for the other Knicks on the floor to gamble more often with their hands, killing opponents' possessions as they constant did to the Bulls last weekend. Add to that, the fact that eight of the Bulls' 14 losses this season have come in the 21 games where they've turned the ball over at least 15 times and a clear recipe for failure was on the table for New York to execute.
The Bulls, instead, acted as they have all season. They moved the ball, as they do at their best, last night with a dynamic 27 of their 39 buckets being assisted, compared to 14 on Sunday. Tuesday's win raised their record to 25-2 when logging at least 25 assists (one of those losses being their recent 17-turnover debacle against the Rockets).
The ball movement also effectively played a game of keep away against Iman Shumpert, who consistently stifled Derrick Rose's endgame strategy on Sunday. In large part, Shumpert's aggressiveness beat itself, as he sunk deep into foul trouble, raising the risk of him checking ball handlers, Seth at Poasting and Toasting noted:
I don't usually think much about "rhythm" on defense, but there have been a few games this season in which I thought I saw Iman Shumpert get thrown off by a few miscues early, then sort of struggle all game on that end. Shump picked up two stupid fouls early on-- one where he went too aggressively after an unlikely offensive rebound, and another where he committed a foul off the ball during an inbound play. He also got lost over a screen guarding C.J. Watson and, to my eye, just looked to be taking the wrong steps and striking at the wrong times last night. I've called this an inability to "finish" defensive plays before. It just seems sometimes like he's playing good defense-- on or off the ball-- but because he's so aggressive, a single mistake or a momentary lapse in concentration can cost him a backdoor cut or an open look over a screen. Another thing, of course, is that he wasn't guarding Derrick Rose last night, so he didn't get to play nearly as much on-ball defense. His D away from the action still needs a lot of work (perhaps the over-aggression is the problem), and it seemed like the Bulls inadvertently exposed him a bit by losing Rose (and it also seemed like Knicks head coach Mike Woodson] tried to counteract this by sticking him primarily on Watson later in the game after he'd been guarding Hamilton earlier). Anyway, Shump ended up picking up five fouls, none of them useful, and he gave up a mouthful of open looks as well.
The Bulls largely live an die on their defense and rebounding. Both were also dominant last night, as the Bulls scored 25 second chance points on 18 offensive boards, scored 19 points on 17 NY turnovers, and allowed a purtid four buckets in the second quarter to cripple the Knicks' chances, according to NBA.com [.pdf]. But the second half saw a lot of even scoring and the Bulls forcing eight turnovers in that half, while only allowing three, consistently kept New York outside the realm of striking distance.
We saw another heroic effort by Jimmy Butler when he repeated his successful shutdown effort against Carmelo Anthony. Butler checked Anthony for 8:32 of the game and finished at a +8. Over that span, 'Melo bricked a 19-footer, bricked a three, assisted a J.R. Smith 18-footer, bricked a 17-footer, nailed two free throws on a Butler foul, drove it in for a layup, and passed the ball to a fan in the stands. Add it all up and it equals: four points on 1-for-4 shooting, one assist, zero rebounds, and a turnover, according to NBA.com's game log.
And that shouldn't be surprising when you see that 'Melo gets forced into the shots the Bulls want him to take more often with Butler checking him, looking at NBA.com's Player vs. Player stats. In 43 minutes over four games, 'Melo is shooting only 29% with Butler on the floor, averaging 19.3 points-per-36 minutes in 20.1 shots-per-36. More important, 45.8% (11-of-24) of those shots are coming from the mid-range, compared to 38.4% (28-of-73) against the Bulls this season when Butler is off the floor. Only 29.2% are at the rim (7-of-24) with Butler on the floor, compared to -- again -- 38.4% (28-of-73) when Butler is off the floor.
But the Knicks defense largely lives and dies on swatting at every ball at every chance they get. When they're ineffective, as they were last night, there isn't much they can do against a great defense like the Bulls. It's why they can make any playoff series dramatic, but don't stand a realistic chance to win a seven-game series against the Bulls or Heat.
Uncredited Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.