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By Sam Smith | 3.29.2015 | 12:15 a.m. CT
Bulls/Knicks is not what it once was, though anyone and Knicks really isn’t anymore as the Bulls Saturday in a relaxed 111-80 victory delivered the Knicks a franchise record 60th loss and ninth in the last 11 against the Bulls.
If there was a word to sum up Saturday night in the United Center it was “wave,” as in less-than-tense fans doing the rhythmic standup wave during the game for entertainment and Knicks defenders charitably waving Bulls to the basket as the Bulls shot 51.2 percent with a massive 50-22 edge in points in the paint along with 28 assists.
With no Bulls player on the floor 30 minutes, the Bulls closed March at 45-29 with a game and a half lead over Toronto for third in the Eastern Conference and three off days before a likely first round playoff preview with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bulls were led by Nikola Mirotic with 24 points in just over 25 minutes, his eighth game of at least 23 points in March as he averaged just under 21 points for the month to lead the team.
Pau Gasol added 19 points and 12 rebounds for his league leading 48th double-double while Jimmy Butler had 18 points and five steals. Butler had three steals in the third quarter as the Bulls were further adding to a 20-point halftime lead that stayed above 30 for all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter.
“We are getting there,” said Butler, who attempted just nine shots with eight of eight from the free throw line. “I think we can still correct a few things, but it was a great win. Guys are starting to get real comfortable on both ends of the court, which makes it easier because we have so many guys who can switch on defense.”
That defensive tactic which the Bulls have mined for the last several years to be among the league defensive leaders is likely to prove vital in the playoffs. It’s a popular trend these days with winning teams like the Warriors and Hawks doing a lot of switching to negate the pick and roll.
It’s one reason, perhaps, why Hall of Famer Walt Frazier on the Knicks TV broadcast for the game said he believed the Bulls were the best team in the East to vie for the NBA title. It hasn’t been a popular choice much this season given the Bulls myriad injuries, uneven play, speculation about internal discord and strong play by teams like Cleveland and Atlanta. But Frazier told New York viewers he believes the Bulls defense is the strongest for the playoffs while playoff inexperience will hurt teams like the Cavaliers and Hawks.
It was one of the Bulls least experienced NBA players, Mirotic, who was crucial in the inevitable breaking the game open against a Knicks team speeding toward the league’s poorest record and a high draft pick mostly with a group of fringe players. Mirotic scored 11 second quarter points with a trio of three pointers, a long one well behind the arc to close a 10-0 Bulls run after the Knicks were as close as they would be at 35-27. Mirotic raised both hands with three fingers showing on each as the Bulls went on to a 54-34 halftime lead and the rout was on from there.
“It will be good for us to rest,” Mirotic noted about the current stretch of one game (if you can call it that) in six days with the Bulls as close to full health as they’ve been with Derrick Rose’s return likely in the next two weeks. “We need to take care of ourselves and keep building and work extra. Right now, everybody needs to give one more step because we know there’s something special. We are playing great basketball. On offense, we’re sharing the ball. On defense, we’re trying to control the rebound and we have much better communication, too. I think we are building and improving. Right now, it’s our moment and I think that we just need to be focused. “Right now, I’m going through a beautiful moment,” said Mirotic of his brilliant month. “Not just because I’m playing good; because the team is playing good. I want to try to keep playing like this.”
It would be helpful, of course, though the Bulls in this stretch with five wins in their last six games seem to be as solid as they have been all season.
It started Saturday with Gasol in a typical opening stretch of 11 points and six first quarter rebounds as the Bulls led 28-17 after one. With a Knicks starting lineup of Lou Amundson, Lance Thomas, Langston Galloway, Shane Larkin and Andrea Bargnani this one was just a matter of time as many Knicks’ games are now since Carmelo Anthony opted for surgery and Amar’e Stoudemire was bought out. The Knicks fell to 14-60 with their 14th loss in their last 16.
So the Bulls had some fun with Gasol with an early running sky hook and after the Bulls blew ahead 49-30 in the second quarter, Mirotic tried a behind the back dribble on a fast break (he lost it) and the phrase “razzle dazzle” came to mind watching Aaron Brooks weave in and out of the Knicks defenders. Butler had back to back steals for breakaways in the third quarter as the Bulls closed the third leading 84-53. The starters basically rested in the fourth with Taj Gibson scoring 10 points and Mirotic eight as they combined to shoot eight of 10 and 63 percent for the team in the quarter.
“I thought our guys came out with a lot of energy and we played tough,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “There are a lot of things we could do better and we have to keep working toward that, but overall we did a lot of good things in that game.”
Though the Bulls did commit 14 turnovers, six were in the casual fourth quarter as the Bulls quietly have improved in that area. They came into the game with 12 or fewer turnovers in their previous seven games as the team goal is 13 or fewer per game. They seem to be building toward the right time of the season.
"I think we're getting there," said Gasol. “We can't get satisfied by a few good games. We’re in the final stretch of the season. We understand the importance of each game. We know the sense of urgency and level of focus is a lot higher. It’s a good opportunity to take care of our bodies, let them heal up and then get good energy to face the Bucks. The schedule is good for us to tighten up some things and get some rest and work on ourselves and get ready for the final stretch.”