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Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks game preview and thread: fingers crossed for winning time in the Garden

can Thibs help put a smile on our faces by falling flat on his?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, your Chicago Bulls continue their stretch of must-win road games at basketball’s so-called “Mecca,” Madison Square Garden, where they are set to face off against friends-turned-foes Tom Thibodeau and Taj Gibson and their New York Knicks.

Technically, former Bulls MVP point guard Derrick Rose will be on the other side, too, but obviously he’s hurt because he’s Derrick Rose so who cares?

Chicago has had a rough go of it since the All-Star break. They have plummeted in the Eastern Conference standings from the top seed to now being dangerously close to the play-in tournament. The club has gone 2-8 on the road since the break, losing what should have been gimmes against the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans.

The team’s defense, both away and at home, has collapsed without Lonzo Ball, though the recent returns of Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams have proven to help on that side of the ball in fits and starts (notably in key winds against the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers).

The 43-31 Bulls hope to get another notch on the win column tonight as they visit the 33-42 Knicks, on the first night of a back-to-back. Tomorrow night, they’ll face off against the 32-42 Wizards without Bradley Beal, which ostensibly should be a victory if Chicago has even a prayer of sneaking back into the top half of the East playoff seeds this year.

On Saturday night, Chicago actually showed signs of life against a good Cleveland team, leading by double digits for much of the night before predictably slipping in the fourth quarter. The Bulls did enough to hold on for a 98-94 win, in one of their more complete performances since the All-Star break (despite the occasional defensive lapses).

In the win, Bulls All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine both turned in efficient 20+ point scoring nights, and the team’s third-leading scorer, center and 2021 All-Star Nikola Vucevic, contributed a typically good-but-not-great line of 16 points (as usual, he started off great and then tapered off in the second half), nine boards and four assists. Caruso looked as good as he has since returning following his wrist injury, Ayo Dosunmu played will starting alongside Caruso in the backcourt, and the team’s bench gave them virtually nothing.

Since the All-Star break, Chicago has tended to play down to the level of its competition. Thanks to a combination of dumb free agency decisions and their 2021 All-Star power forward coming down to earth in a big way, the Knicks are bad this season, and should be beatable, but we’ve seen the Bulls recently cough up relatively even contests in the fourth to play-in and lottery-bound clubs in recent weeks. The Bulls do hold a 2-1 record in their season series with the Knicks, which is something.

That aforementioned embattled ex-All-Star, Julius Randle, recently sat for three games due to a quad injury, but contributed in a big way for the Knicks’ last contest, a 104-102 win over the lottery-bound Pistons. Speaking of the lottery, the Knicks are technically still in the play-in hunt, 4.5 games behind the tenth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. They are looking to secure their fourth consecutive win tonight, after impressive victories over better clubs like the Heat and Hornets. A Bulls victory should make New York’s path to a play-in game all but impossible.

But Julius Randle hasn’t been the story of late for New York, a team that seems to have already fallen out of love with its star after he enjoyed the best year of his life in the 2020-21 season, making his first All-Star and All-NBA teams and leading the Knicks to an improbable fourth seed before the Hawks dealt them a gentleman’s sweep in the playoffs.

Random young Knicks have been getting plenty of run lately as New York has finally talked Tom Thibodeau into coaching with an eye towards the future (and the lottery). Thibs, who famously hates playing young guns, must be pleasantly surprised by what he has accidentally discovered with this youth movement. Rookies Jericho Sims, Miles McBride, and Quintin Grimes have all shown the kind of rabid defensive intensity that Thibs supposedly relishes, while second-year players Immanuel Quickly and Obi Toppin have emerged as fan favorites thanks to the promise they’ve exhibited across their increased minutes.

On the old guys side, veteran swingman Alec Burks has emerged as a solid two-way contributor for New York on the wing of late. 36-year-old center/power forward Taj Gibson, DeRozan and Vucevic’s old USC teammate, has enjoyed a season of outsized importance for an injury-plagued Knicks team, though Thibodeau has tempered Taj’s minutes as of late.

More on the Eastern Conference standings — the 47-28 Boston Celtics have risen all the way from the No. 11 seed in January to the East’s top seed this weekend. In second place, the 47-28 Miami Heat have dropped four straight games and Erik Spoelstra has taken games off for “personal reasons” after getting into an ugly argument with Jimmy Butler at the bench during a recent loss to Warriors scrubs.

Sporting identical 46-28 records, the Philadelphia Sixers and Milwaukee Bucks are breathing down the necks of the top two seeds. The fifth-seeded Bulls are now just three games behind that duo. It’s hard to exactly predict what will happen for Chicago this week given the team’s issues on the road, but it has an opportunity to really make up some ground in the conference if it carries over its play from the Cleveland game. The Bulls have a trio of winnable games on their slate, first with these back-to-back Knicks and Wizards games, followed by a visit to the 36-39 Clippers on Thursday. And who knows what emotional state the once-mighty Heat will be in by the team the Bulls face off against Miami on Saturday.

This week represents a massive chance for Chicago to really crawl back into the East’s top four, should the team’s exciting recent two-way play hold, and it all starts tonight.

Injury Report:

For the Bulls, only Lonzo Ball is out.

On the Knicks side, old pal Derrick Rose remains shelved following a right ankle surgery that has kept him out for most of the season. Kemba Walker is no longer around the team as the clubs hope for an offseason divorce. Center Nerlens Noel (sore left foot) and wing Cam Reddish (right shoulder) are out. Guard Quentin Grimes is questionable.

Game Time:

6:30 p.m. CT, NBC Sports Chicago

Odds:

The Bulls are listed as 3.5-point favorites tonight. Given the personnel involved, the over/under set for the cumulative game score is a pretty low 218.5 total points. (All info via DraftKings. Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.)