The New York Knicks are back to the same winning ways that we saw from them in the first month of the season, when it looked like they were ready to surprise everybody and be a contender in the Eastern Conference. They're riding a 13-game winning streak, current longest in the NBA and the fourth-longest streak of the season.
New York is back to smothering teams with its offense from the perimeter. During the winning streak, the Knicks have been more dominant than we saw from the Miami Heat during their 27-game winning streak earlier this season. The Knicks are beating their opponents by a net differential of 14.8 points per 100 possessions over these 13 games, better than the 14.1 net differential the Heat put up during a streak that lasted twice as long.
The Knicks have been administering such a pounding to their opponents by making more than half their shots from the field (50.1 percent) and 42.5 percent from 3-point range. Their true shooting percentage during the streak is 60.5 percent, which is slightly higher than the 59.9 percent the Heat put up during theirs.
To extend the Knicks' streak to 14 games and approach the franchise-record 18-game winning streak the 1969-70 Knicks enjoyed, they'll have to defeat the Chicago Bulls in Chicago on Thursday night. New York has lost seven of its past eight meetings with the Bulls, including all three this season. As you probably remember, the Bulls were the team that ended Miami's historic streak earlier this season.
Why have the Bulls been so good against the Knicks? Well, they have bottled up Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith this season. They've also kept the Knicks out of the corners, where they love to find 3-point shooters.
How have they been able to defend Melo so well in the two games that he has played against them this season? Howard Beck of the New York Times asked Anthony:
Yet there should be no lack of tension or motivation on the court Thursday — for Anthony, in particular. He missed the first loss to the Bulls because of a lacerated finger and was stymied in the two games he played, going 24 for 57 from the field (.421).
“They caught me at some bad times,” Anthony said with a rueful grin.
Anthony was ejected in the fourth quarter of the second game, for swinging his arm near Joakim Noah's head, after a long night of irritating defense from Noah, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler.
The defensive capabilities of Deng and Butler are definitely an asset for coach Tom Thibodeau. Deng has been one of the premier small forward defenders for the past few seasons, and Butler has developed under Thibodeau to become an integral role player for what the Bulls like to do defensively.
“They've got multiple guys that can cover Carmelo,” TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. “Deng does a fantastic job on him, and the way that Jimmy Butler has developed, you really have someone you can throw on Carmelo for 48 minutes. One of those two guys can stay with him and make everything difficult.”
“I do think when Carmelo gets in trouble it's with too much isolation and not enough ball movement by the team in general,” Kerr said. “And Chicago has the ability to do that to anybody. They frustrate a lot of teams. They load up on you. They get you stagnant, and you lose the rhythm and the flow of your offense. I think that's definitely the case when they play the Knicks.”
It goes beyond frustrating Anthony, though. There have been plenty of nights in which Melo was unable to get his game going at an efficient manner and the rest of the team was able to step up to grind out a victory. That usually happens with ball movement around the perimeter to create open shots in the corners, and that's something the Bulls haven't allowed against the Knicks this season.
During New York's winning streak, they've been flanking opposing defenses with corner 3-point shots and converting at a high rate. In the 13 games, they've made 48-of-104 (46.1 percent) from the corners. Against the Bulls in three losses, they're just 2-of-14 (14.2 percent) from the corners. They've been attempting eight corner 3-pointers per game during the streak, and that number dropped to fewer than five attempts per game against Chicago.
For the Knicks to continue their streak, they'll have to find a way to get Smith, Steve Novak and others back into the corners and get them open shots. It will take more than just accurate 3-point shots to defeat the Bulls. They'll have to find a way to get into the paint and make the Bulls pay.
It helps New York that Noah and Taj Gibson will be are out on Thursday night, but the Bulls' defense is about getting the guys to buy into Thibodeau's system. And if Deng's game-time decision is to play, then they might have just enough to chase the Knicks off the 3-point line and make them try to score in other ways. Not to mention, the Bulls were without Noah when they snapped the Heat's streak, so being short-handed isn't something that seems to be a mental block for them.
Will the Knicks extend their winning streak on Thursday night? They're going to have to exorcise some demons against the Bulls to do so.