Knicks vs. Bulls preview: Chicago goes for season sweep vs. New York

Al Bello

The Bulls and Knicks face-off at the United Center on Thursday.

The New York Knicks ride a 13-game winning streak into the United Center on Thursday to take on the Chicago Bulls. New York will be without star center Tyson Chandler, who is out with a bulging disk in his neck, but that's nothing new for the Knicks: Chandler has played in only four games during the streak; the Knicks have somehow found a way to win without him. Backup big Kenyon Martin is out, too. Of course, the Bulls have their own fair share of injuries, and will likely be without Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson.

The Bulls are going for the season sweep tonight. Chicago defeated the Knicks three times between December 8 and January 11, overcoming a fourth quarter barrage from Carmelo Anthony to hold on for victory in the last meeting at the Madison Square Garden. This is hardly the same Knicks team the Bulls saw this winter, though. New York has rode the winning streak all the way to the No. 2 seed in the East. They've defeated the Thunder and the Heat and have beaten the Celtics twice during the streak. The Bulls will have their work cut out for them tonight.

The over the course of the winning streak, the Knicks are scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the league by 8.5 were it extended over the entire season. So yeah: New York's offense has been pretty amazing lately. They owe it mostly to Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, both of whom have been on-fire.

Anthony is averaging 33 points per point over the course of the streak. He's scored 36 or more points in each of his last five games, which includes a three-game streak where he scored 40 or more. Melo is averaging 40.6 points per game on 61 percent shooting in five games in April. He is terrifying.

Smith is, too. Smith has been giving opponents the pipe lately to the tune of 23.2 points per game over the last 13, a mark helped by the 7.2 free throw attempts he has been securing. Smith went off for 37 against the Bobcats, 35 against the Grizzlies, 32 against the Celtics and 30 against the Bucks during the streak.

You know what that means: it's all about Jimmy Butler. The second-year wing is coming off the best game of his career, but defense is still his calling card. Considering Butler has played over 44 minutes in his 15 starts this season, you can bet Thibodeau won't afford him much rest tonight. He'll be matched up with Anthony the majority of the time, Smith the rest of it.

Butler certainly has the size and athleticism to give Anthony trouble, but the Knicks star is just so locked in right now it's possible it might all go for naught. We've seen Jimmy do a stellar job defensively against the likes of Kobe and Dwyane Wade this season. If he can halt Melo's torrid pace, I'm not sure you'll be able to put a cap on B-a-B's Jimmy-related enthusiasm.

If the Bulls are going to win tonight, they're going to have to challenge the Knicks' avalanche of three-pointers. Over the course of the winning streak, the Knicks are shooting a comically high 27.5 threes a game. What's scarier is they're knocking them down over 42 percent of the time. Three-point shooting has been the Knicks' M.O. all year, and is one of the main reasons why they're so better than last season. The others reasons? Mike Woodson has gotten the defense up to league-average (New York is 15th in team defensive rating), their third in defensive rebounding percentage and new point guards Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton are turning the ball over far less.

With Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis last season, the Knicks were 27th in turnovers per 100 possessions, giving it up 16.8 times. They're No. 1 this year, cutting down the turnovers to just 13.2 over 100 possessions.

I have been secretly holding out hope for a Bulls-Knicks playoff series, and it could still happen. The Bulls are currently the No. 5 seed, but they're tied with the Hawks. If the Bulls were to fall to the No. 6 seed and defeat the Pacers in the first round (a series Indiana would be favored to win), they could face New York in round two. That would be a lot of fun. But since it's far from guaranteed, I want to get one thing off my chest since it might be the last time I'll be able to: I really like these Knicks.

I know, Chicago vs. New York, whatever. I just think sports hate should be fluid in most situations, save for those times when just looking at the uniform of the other team is enough to induce vomit (hi, Green Bay Packers). The Knicks are pretty cool. Melo and J.R. Smith play basketball in about the most entertaining way possible. Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace are injured, but not forgotten. Tyson Chandler always has and always will have my support. Trust me, I hated the Knicks growing up when they were hitting Jordan upside the head every time he went into the paint. I was very distraught as a child when the Bulls traded for John Starks. But Starks isn't on this team, and neither is Patrick Ewing or Anthony Mason. Hue Hollins is nowhere to be seen.

David J. Roth, one of my favorite sportswriters, wrote a good essay on Wednesday on the Knicks and how they capture New York. It included this part:

There have been some very good Knicks teams in recent memory, but they weren't much fun. In the 1990s, Pat Riley -- the slick godfather of Showtime, stuck with a roster of grunty, beefy human elbows -- and then Jeff Van Gundy built a pair of the least appealing title contenders in NBA history. There may be some results-oriented Knicks fans who remember Derek Harper's Humpty Hump-ian anti-swag and Anthony Mason's glowering as a high point in their basketball-watching lives, but even when the Knicks were making it to the NBA Finals (they managed it under Riley in '93-94, and then again under Van Gundy in the lockout-shortened '98-99 season) they were tough to love, or even to like.

Exactly. The Knicks from 20 years ago? The worst. But these Knicks are pretty cool, I think. I like the way they roll.

Point is, tonight should be fun, even if the Bulls' four best players won't go. I'm excited to see Jimmy on Melo, I'm excited to see another round of shit-talking between Nate and Steve Novak, I'm excited to see more of Malcolm Thomas. Game tips at 7 locally. See you here.

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