The Bulls welcomed back Wendell Carter Jr. on saturday, but it still wasn't enough to get past the more physical New York Knicks.
The Bulls once again in New York City played the role of Midwest tourists in the big city, staring up at the heights while getting pushed around and leaving with that empty feeling.
"A similar theme," lamented Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "Their physicality, their size was hard on us."
Bullied by the guys chasing their 18th win?
So it was for the Bulls Saturday in Madison Square Garden, yielding a season most 76 inside points as Knicks players pushed Bulls aside like rush hour pedestrians racing home in a 125-115 Knicks victory. The Knicks outworked the Bulls 50-33 on the boards even with the return of center Wendell Carter Jr. The Knicks shot 55 percent with 32 second-chance points at least a half dozen lob dunk scores. The Knicks didn't have a fast-break score.
Reserve New York big man Mitchell Robinson, whose shooting range is about 10 inches, led the Knicks with 23 points. Julius Randle added 22 points and R.J. Barrett had 19. Former Bulls Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis had 17 and 10 rebounds, respectively, if not always respectfully. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 26 points and seven assists and Coby White, uncertain with a back strain, added 22 points off the bench. Thaddeus Young had 15 points, Daniel Gafford had 12 and Denzel Valentine also returned from injury and had eight points in 10 minutes.
"I feel good for (teammates) coming back," said LaVine. "I just hope we can all stay locked in and finish these games. I just try to focus on what I can do and if I can look myself in the mirror and say I did everything that I can do to finish this game, I'm happy with that. Stick to my routine, come in every day, try to be a pro, just get better. I think we can all do a little bit better being consistent with ourselves. You have to stay consistent and don't let that doubt creep in. There will be frustrations. You have to take pride in it. This is still our job. We have to compete and play."
The Bulls, 20-40, have nine losses in their last 10 games and are in a defensive free fall, which is a worrisome sign in playing out a season. In these last 10 games, the Bulls are giving up 121 points per game and being outscored by nine points per game with six double-digit losses.
The competitive spirit that has carried them so long through the early disappointments and injuries seems to be wavering some amidst the weight of the losses. Players appear to be trying, though the lack of size has been problematic with the multiple guard lineups and frontcourt players Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Luke Kornet still out. Though it's not like Bulls players are running away from fault.
"Tonight down the stretch I didn't really have it," acknowledged the candid Carter, who hardly was the fault in his first game in almost two months following an ankle injury. "It definitely bothers me as a player. They had 70-some points in the paint. They rebounded like 53 percent of their misses. I just feel like that's a recipe for disaster. If we can't be tougher as a team, we are going to lose that battle every time. I'm not going to blame it on me not being 100 percent, but I wasn't playing physical enough tonight, obviously. Just have to approach every game and make sure my presence is felt on the physical side."
Carter is on a playing time limitation. He had a productive six points and nine rebounds in 18 minutes, starting the game with a blocked shot. But he also missed four of his five shots.
"Not necessarily my ankle hurt or anything," said Carter. "More so I wasn't in a groove; my timing was off. My pick and roll coverages were kind of shaky. It's kind of hard for me to voice how I'm feeling to the team when I'm not doing the job I'm supposed to be doing. I had to bite my tongue on a lot of things."
There wasn't much to say the way the 18-42 Knicks with six consecutive losses were racing to the basket-like midtown taxi drivers with the Bulls waving like they were trying to get one to stop in the rain. The Bulls actually had one of their more efficient games with 17 of 35 threes and just eight turnovers for seven Knicks points while scoring 29 points on Knicks' mistakes. So there was Bulls activity, if not always satisfying. The Bulls did adapt to the local environment by picking some pockets with a dozen steals. Young had five, 17 in the last five games.
The lane must have looked to the Bulls like it was shaded with a canopy the way the Knicks players were soaring over the Bulls for repeat attempts and dunks.
"They got middle on us too much," said Boylen. "That created situations at the rim, lobs; you have to shift. The offensive rebound opportunities were open. It's disappointing (to be pushed around physically). It's exactly what we talked about with the team and we have to do better."
Shaquille Harrison drew the musical chairs start Saturday in place of Ryan Arcidiacono, though that starting five with Tomas Satoransky generally leaves the Bulls at a disadvantage offensively. So once again the Bulls were playing from behind as they have in just about every game the last few weeks. The trailed 9-2 to start with Gibson getting the edge inside on Carter.
"I got winded pretty quickly," Carter admitted. "I try to train and be prepared for it, but it's nothing like playing in a game. It's just something I'm working towards. I'm not really focusing on too much right now, just trying to get my second wind back."
The Knicks more than doubled the Bulls on the boards to start and 12 of their 13 first-quarter field goals were either layups or dunks. Welcome to your early starting time, which was 5 p.m. Eastern. The Bulls woke up in the second quarter with a nice run that included back to back LaVine threes. The Bulls high scorer despite the season of setbacks hasn't missed a game and continues to compete at a high level.
"I can't speak for everybody else. I know when I step on the floor, I think I can win," said LaVine. "I haven't been a winner in the NBA, but I don't feel like I'm a losing player. So I think I can help to the best of my ability. That's where you start. You have to think of yourself and then go upwards."
LaVine rose for several dunks, as usual, and tied Satoransky for the team lead in assists despite drawing the bulk of defensive attention. LaVine had just one turnover and a steal in a team most 38 minutes.
With his threes, the Bulls took a 46-43 lead midway through the second quarter. It still was a one-point game with three minutes remaining when the Knicks closed the half on a 16-2 run for a 66-53 halftime lead.
The Knicks sprinted to a 17-point lead early in the third quarter, but at least these Bulls don't give in. With LaVine contributing seven points and Valentine eight straight for the Bulls to close the third, the Bulls got within 89-86 entering the fourth quarter.
"We have to hold people down when we score 115," said Boylen. "If we do that, we have a chance to win. We didn't. Great to have Wendell back in there. I thought he had some moments when he looked like Wendell and I thought he had some moments when he looked like he was preseason still; that's part of it. That's why he's on a minutes restriction. He's not full bore yet. I thought Denzel gave us some good minutes. We'll keep moving forward with it."
Bulls vs. Knicks Recap
White declined to take his first game off and looked like he might save the Bulls in the fourth. He scored on a fast break after a turnover and made a three to bring the Bulls within two with nine minutes left. But the Knicks sandwiched a Bulls turnover with back to back threes, shook off an Adam Mokoka three and steadily pulled away with 10 more dunks and layups and nine free throws as LaVine even earned a rare frustration technical foul.
Spend a February afternoon in Manhattan and it's difficult to leave with a smile.