An old-school NBA rivalry will be revisited Friday night, when the Chicago Bulls head to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Knicks. These two teams were a near-lock to face each other in the playoffs throughout the 1990s, with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls often running rampant over the defensive Knicks.
It is a new era now. Jordan is retired, but these two teams still have some extra fire in their bellies whenever they play each other. Chicago won the first meeting of the season on December 8, but New York was without star player Carmelo Anthony and still played a respectable game.
Anthony will be back in the lineup this time around, which will give the Knicks a distinct advantage. Just the same, the Bulls have played quite well in the absence of star point guard Derrick Rose, who is still recovering from ACL surgery. The team is currently in first place in the Central Division and is not to be taken lightly.
Both teams rely on tough defense to carry them to success, so it will be interesting to see who wins out. Chicago currently ranks second in points allowed per game at 90.3, while New York ranks 10th with 96.2.
The grand difference is that the Knicks are also one of the league's top scoring teams, and the Bulls have struggled to score points in the absence of their star floor general.
The stage is thus set for a great game, with each team gunning to continue its good start.
Time: Friday, December 21st, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: NBATV, CSN Chicago, MSG
Records: Chicago Bulls (14-10) vs. New York Knicks (19-6)
Betting Lines: Not available as of Thursday, December 20, 10:15 a.m. EST
Injuries: Iman Shumpert (knee, out), Marcus Camby (foot, day-to-day), Rasheed Wallace (foot, day-to-day), Amar'e Stoudemire (knee, day-to-day), Steve Novak (illness, probable), Derrick Rose (knee, out), Richard Hamilton (foot, out)
Key Storyline: Knicks Look to Avenge Earlier Loss as Stoudemire's Return Looms
There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the Knicks are one of the teams to beat this season. They'll be gunning for a win against the Bulls, who defeated them 93-85 at the United Center on December 8. However, there is more to this game than just the revenge factor.
You see, star big man Amar'e Stoudemire has progressed well enough from knee surgery that he could very well play this weekend. Whether or not he plays against the Bulls remains to be seen, but the Knicks could definitely use his size and scoring on the court, be it as a starter or off the bench.
In two seasons with the Knicks, Stoudemire has averaged 22.4 points, eight rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, and has been a good inside presence as well as someone who can stretch the floor.
Regardless of if Stoudemire suits up against the Bulls, the Knicks would love to come away with a win. The only reason they lost their first game against Chicago was because Anthony sat out with a lacerated finger, and his 28 points per game (second in the NBA) will give the Knicks a much-needed boost against a Bulls team that refuses to give up without its star.
It's bound to be a defensive battle from start to finish, and it's going to be just like any rivalry game. Whoever wants the win more shall come out on top.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Tyson Chandler
Though the Bulls' key assignment on defense will be to slow down Carmelo Anthony, they cannot forget about dominant center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. Not only has he been a great presence in the middle at 7'1", 240 pounds, but he has been a force on offense as well.
On the season, Chandler is averaging 10 rebounds and a career-best 13 points per game. He is also leading the NBA in field-goal percentage once again, this time making an incredible 70 percent of his attempts.
Joakim Noah will once again be tasked with guarding him and will hopefully see some better results. Even in victory on December 8, Noah could not stop his opponent, who scored 14 points and had 18 rebounds. Noah himself was limited to 10 points, though he did pull down 11 rebounds and block four shots.
Chandler will be looking for a repeat performance, and Noah will be doing all he can to stop him. The former Florida Gator has performed remarkably well this season, averaging 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. On paper, he and Chandler are not that much different.
The plan is pretty simple for the Bulls, save for slowing down Anthony. Stop Chandler, and you stop one of the Knicks' main catalysts. Chandler has developed a great relationship with point guard Raymond Felton, and he's often on the receiving end of lobs and alley-oops.
So long as Noah can prevent this from happening and box Chandler out effectively, Chicago will have a fighting chance.
X-Factor: J.R. Smith
As important as it is for Anthony and Chandler to perform well against Chicago, it is even more so for Smith. He has done a phenomenal job as the Knicks' sixth man this season, averaging 14.4 points and shooting 36 percent from long range.
Smith was also in a bit of a shooting slump to start December, shooting just 27 percent from the field over his first five games of the month. His last five games, however, have been a different story.
Smith has been a new player since his slow start. Rather than just be a shooter, he is doing an incredible job of driving the lane and creating off the dribble. His ability to create his own shot is a skill that has surprised everyone, and the results speak for themselves.
Over his last five games, Smith has averaged 17.2 points and shot 47 percent from the field. He has shot just 32 percent from long range but has not relied on his three as often has he did earlier in the season.
The Knicks will need Smith to continue his hot streak against the Bulls, whose defense has been incredible all season long. He needs to continue doing what he's been doing since breaking out of his slump.
Instead of waiting for an open shot from beyond the arc, he needs to continue creating his own shot even if there is a hand in his face. He needs to drive hard to the basket and draw a foul and not be afraid to rise above the rim to throw down one of his infamous dunks.
All in all, Smith just has to be versatile with his game. Yes, his best skill is as a shooter, but the Knicks cannot afford to get one-sided against a tough Chicago defense that has already defeated them once this season.
With Smith mixing it up and keeping the Bulls on their heels, the Knicks' chances of winning grow.
The Knicks were unable to hold off the charging Bulls earlier this month, but the circumstances are different now. Carmelo Anthony is back in the lineup, and he will carry the Knicks offensively while also pulling down some key rebounds. For the Bulls, this will spell defeat.
Tyson Chandler will once again prove to be a better athlete than the younger Joakim Noah and will have yet another double-double courtesy of some lobs from Raymond Felton and even Jason Kidd.
Luol Deng and Noah will do all they can to keep the Bulls in the game, as will shooters Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, but it won't be enough. Carlos Boozer will continue to be merely average as a member of the Bulls, and his inability to match up well with Anthony will bury Chicago.
Of course, that is after the Bulls are unable to stop J.R. Smith. He will continue to make his case for Sixth Man of the Year, sinking buckets left and right and from anywhere on the floor. His performance against Chicago will make other teams take note and start drawing up defensive plans on how to defensively stop him.
The Knicks will thus start their weekend off with a key win against a rival, and they will just continue to remind the rest of the NBA why they are the team to beat this season.
New York Knicks 106, Chicago Bulls 97