|Derrick Rose can find a way to score in this situation. The Knicks don't have such a player. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- Two forces seemingly conspired to make this another tough night for the Knicks, no matter how many national TV cameras were in the building or how much star power was on the floor and in the high-dollar seats at Madison Square Garden.
First, the Bulls dislike anything but winning, and haven't lost back-to-back games all season. Having lost Wednesday night in Philadelphia, it seemed pretty clear what was coming.
"We don't like losing," Derrick Rose was saying at his locker, after the Bulls beat the Knicks 105-102 on Thursday night. "We have winners on this team."
Add Rose's affinity for playing at the Garden, and it was a recipe for the end of the Knicks' suddenly notable one-game winning streak, their second such rampage in three weeks.
"I love playing here," Rose said. "The crowd really loves basketball, and they know basketball. I just love the energy here. They love their team and they talk about you. I love it."
But there was another, much simpler truism of basketball that the Bulls had on their side and the Knicks did not, and it will continue to spell doom for the team that was supposed to join the Bulls, Heat and Celtics among the Eastern Conference elite this season. The 76ers have it, too, and they've entered that conversation as quickly as the Knicks have been left behind.
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There's only one Derrick Rose. But if you look around at the vast majority of teams experiencing success in this crazy post-lockout world, they share a common denominator: a dynamic point guard who can get to the paint, score in the paint and make all five defenders, the entire coaching staff and everyone watching in the seats and at home pay attention to him.
Every time Rose had the ball in his hands in the closing minutes of this tight regular-season game, the Garden pulsating and the crowd standing, the Knicks were building a human wall between Rose and the basket. It's a figurative barrier that the Knicks will never overcome until they find someone who can do the same -- or at least some reasonable approximation.
"Every time I step on the court, they're coming at me," Rose said. "I'm not going at them. I love the challenge. I'm not backing away from it."
As tight as it was at the end, it was Rose and his incomparable gifts that dictated the outcome with 6½ minutes left. Rose broke down the defense off the dribble, split the Knicks' two helpless stars, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, and threw in a superb up-and-under scoop shot to give Chicago a 92-85 lead. After Rose traded 3-pointers with Landry Fields, the Knicks' response to Rose's example of elite point guard play was this: Rookie Iman Shumpert, playing too much and out of position, seeing reserve Jimmy Butler guarding Stoudemire and then dribbling straight at them and missing a 15-footer.
The Knicks didn't do a bad defensive job on Rose, and considering how bad they were in that department last season, this should be viewed as a monumental achievement. Moments later, Rose missed a driving layup and saw his shot blocked by Tyson Chandler. It was a one-point lead for Chicago, 101-100, when the Knicks had to play the foul game and hope for the best with less than 20 seconds left.
By that point, only the good fortune of Stoudemire making a 3-pointer with 11.9 seconds left (he missed) or the Bulls inexplicably fouling Anthony when up by four with 6.3 seconds left (Melo made both free throws but the Bulls survived anyway) could've given Mike D'Antoni the kind of shot-in-the-arm victory he so badly needs to take the pressure off. The Knicks (8-14) have lost 10 of 12 and now go to Boston on Friday and play host to New Jersey on Saturday in the dreaded, lockout-induced back-to-back-to-back.
"We played hard, we played well and we had a chance to win," said Stoudemire, who had a season-high 34 points to go with 11 rebounds. "On to the next one."
But it won't get any easier for Stoudemire or the Knicks, and most of all for D'Antoni, whose coaching philosophy and acumen has come under fire without regard for the most important missing ingredient -- for his system or any system.
"Obviously, if you have a great point guard, that's an offense unto itself," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "So even when something is covered well, they can create something to get you an easy shot, a good shot, a high-percentage shot. And also, their penetration leads to a lot of good things -- second shots, fouls on their bigs. So my recommendation is, if you can get one, get one."
The Bulls have Rose. The Celtics have Rajon Rondo. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook. The Clippers have Chris Paul. There's Tony Parker, ex-Knick Raymond Felton, even Andre Miller and his old-man game, and on and on. The teams with talent but no penetrating point guard (Lakers, Magic) are finding it difficult to win. The lone exception is the Heat, and they've gone and stolen half of D'Antoni's offense and turned LeBron James and Dwyane Wade loose in the open court.
"And those guys are pretty good," Thibodeau said.
Rose had 32 points and 13 assists, doing it all for the Bulls and dictating everything to the defense in front of him. His only misstep was once again at the foul line; after infamously missing two late in the Miami game on Sunday, he made one of two in a similar situation late in this one.
"If only I could make the damn free throws," he said.
These are the kind of problems that you have when your best player is an unguardable point guard. And when your point guard is Toney Douglas, it doesn't matter how many stars you put on the floor around him.
So the Bulls continue their inevitable march to the Eastern Conference finals, while the Knicks wait for Baron Davis to save them. Davis, trying to return from a back injury, better hurry. And if the Knicks hope to do anything but waste Anthony's best years and Stoudemire's best remaining ones, not to mention squander the genius of the best offensive coach in the league, they better take the advice of the best defensive coach in the league.
Nobody knows better than Thibodeau the value of what the Knicks are so blatantly lacking.