The New York Knicks came into Friday's contest just a half game out of first place in the Eastern Conference, despite having lost six of their last 10 games. The Chicago Bulls were three games behind the Knicks and 6-4 in their last 10.
But on Friday night, one man made all the difference. It's safe to say that Luol Deng brought his A-game to Madison Square Garden. He scored 33 points and carried the Bulls to a 108-101 victory.
This matchup didn't bode well for the Knicks. The Bulls had been 6-1 against Atlantic Division opponents. They had beaten the Knicks in their past three games and won five of the last six in the series.
The Knicks were also shorthanded, missing Raymond Felton, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby due to injury.
In their last meeting on Dec. 21, the Bulls led the entire game and were up by as many as 25 in the 110-106 win. This game went just as poorly as that one for the Knicks.
The Bulls shot the ball twice as efficiently as their opponent for most of the first half (after two quarters, Chicago was 57.5 percent from the field while the Knicks had their worst first half of the season, shooting to 29.8 percent). Chicago was also locked in from three-point range, especially in the first half, going 4-of-6 from downtown while the Knicks were 0-of-5.
The second half didn't go much better, as the Knicks still trailed by 22 points after three quarters. Boos rained down from the celebrity-studded crowd at MSG. They trimmed the deficit to just five points late in the game, but time wasn't on their side.
After losing this one, the Knicks will look to beat up on their next opponent, the New Orleans Hornets. Then they will fly to London to face the Detroit Pistons.
The Bulls appear to be headed in the right direction and should get Derrick Rose back sometime in the near future. They next play the Phoenix Suns before a tough matchup against the surprising Atlanta Hawks.
But how does the grading curve work for this game? Well, I'll have to get my red pen out, because the Bulls took the Knicks to school.
Kirk Hinrich, Bulls: C
After some early foul trouble, coach Tom Thibodeau stayed with Hinrich despite his two fouls. The Bulls finished the first quarter with nine assists to New York's two, and Hinrich went for five dimes in the first half.
Hinrich did not shoot well from the field (1-of-5), but he played big minutes (37:40) and ran the offense well. He also hit all four of his free throws.
Jason Kidd, Knicks: F
Kidd had a disappointing first half, going 0-of-5 from the field and finishing with a plus-minus rating of minus-20. Uncharacteristically, Kidd finished with a very poor stat line, going 0-of-6 from the floor with four rebounds and one turnover.
Coach Mike Woodson went with Pablo Prigioni for much of the second half, probably to save Kidd's legs in a game that felt out of reach before the halftime buzzer sounded.
Richard Hamilton, Bulls: B
Hamilton also got into foul trouble early, committing his second personal fewer than six minutes into the game. But the veteran did not commit another foul on his way to a very efficient double-digit scoring night.
Hamilton shot 6-of-9 for 14 points, suggesting the Knicks should invest in some facemasks for their players.
James White, Knicks: B-
While White got the start, he played less than four minutes in the first half, yielding to J.R. Smith who played over 20 minutes through two quarters.
But Woodson cycled the athletic White back into the rotation in the second half, and White knocked down some shots when the Knicks were desperate for a bucket. It didn't really impact the final score, but it was encouraging to see White shooting with confidence.
He finished up 4-of-7 with two treys for 11 points and also added three steals on defense.
Luol Deng, Bulls: A
At 40.1 minutes per game, Deng is leading the NBA in playing time (Joakim Noah is fourth in the league with 38.9 per game). It was the same old story for Deng, who played over 42 minutes despite Chicago's big lead for much of the game.
Deng paved the way for Chicago's fast start against the Knicks. In the first 18 minutes of the game, he had already put up 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-3 from downtown.
Deng powered the Bulls to a 25-point lead in the second quarter. He finished up with 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting, as well as five boards and four assists. While he did commit five turnovers, his efficient shooting more than made up for that. It was a good time for Deng to notch his highest point total of the season.
Carmelo Anthony, Knicks: C
After missing Thursday's game against the Indiana Pacers due to a one-game suspension (a loss), Anthony began the game 0-of-7 shooting from the field, which resulted in an early 27-12 deficit for the Knicks. There were only 90 seconds remaining in the first quarter when 'Melo converted a driving layup, his first basket.
'Melo also struggled defensively, allowing Luol Deng to shoot the lights out in the first half. 'Melo struggled so much in the first half that Mike Woodson moved him to power forward in the second half.
While he did finish up with 39 points, eight rebounds and five assists in over 45 minutes, he was only 14-of-32 shooting. Carmelo's slow start doomed the Knicks, and their comeback in the fourth quarter was too little, too late.
Carlos Boozer, Bulls: B
Boozer, along with Joakim Noah, got off to a good start on the boards. And while the big man did not have a great night shooting (6-of-14), he did score 17 points to go with six rebounds.
Boozer has been looking stronger of late and provides Chicago with one of the more solid frontcourts in the league. The disgust that some Chicago fans have aimed at the Booze Cruise may be dissipating.
Kurt Thomas, Knicks: C
With Rasheed Wallace still out with a sore foot and Marcus Camby aggravating his plantar fasciitis on Thursday against the Pacers (per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News on Twitter), the Knicks had to rely on Thomas to start in this one.
While he played fewer minutes than Amar'e Stoudemire (nine to 19), Thomas did outscore the man who relieved him off the bench (six points to five). Thomas also added two rebounds and two steals, but he is nowhere near being capable of playing starter's minutes.
Joakim Noah, Bulls: B+
Joakim Noah has 16 double-doubles this season and 14 games with five or more assists. According to NBA.com, "his 10 games with a points/rebound double-double and at least five assists are tied for first in the NBA this season with LeBron James" (per NBA media notes).
Against the Knicks, Noah filled up the stat sheet again. He fell just short of the double-double with five assists, going for nine points, eight boards and four dimes before fouling out. He also added four blocks and was a force on the interior.
Due to the foul trouble, he only played 29 minutes, but they were good minutes that spurred the Bulls to victory.
Tyson Chandler, Knicks: B
Chandler was a beast on the boards, fighting on the inside and punching out several of his signature "volleyball-dig" offensive rebounds. He played 38 minutes, scoring only nine points but snatching 18 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass.
He also added a block, a steal and two assists, but he will have to improve his free-throw shooting. Chandler was just 3-of-6 from the foul line, although he's shooting 69 percent on the year.
Marco Belinelli, SG, Bulls: C
Belinelli didn't light up the scoreboard (although he is more than capable of that when his shot is falling), but his energy contributed to Chicago's stingy defense. Belinelli didn't score in the first half, but he did dish three assists and participated in Chicago's excellent ball movement and hot shooting.
He finished up with 12 points and five assists, but his never-ending motor kept the Bulls going through the finish line when the lead was dwindling late in the fourth.
J.R. Smith, SG, Knicks: D
Smith had another poor night shooting the basketball. After going 10-of-29 from the field in Thursday's game against the Indiana Pacers, Smith turned in another inefficient performance.
In 39 minutes, Smith scored 13 points, but he was only 4-of-17 from the field. He also fouled out of the game.
This was not one for the archives. It was more of a "J.R. Starks" night.
Bench, Knicks: B
Amar'e Stoudemire came off the bench again, as he tries to regain his sea legs, but his minutes are being carefully managed by the coaching staff. He finished with just one rebound, five points and five fouls in 18:35.
Pablo Prigioni was crucial to the Knicks' teasing comeback late in the fourth quarter. He subbed in for the ineffective Jason Kidd and dropped 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. In his 30 minutes, he dished eight assists and also had three steals before fouling out.
Steve Novak added two three-pointers and the Knicks were plus-19 with him on the floor.
Against his former team, Ronnie Brewer stayed glued to the bench after being recently ineffective.
Bench, Bulls: B-
Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson were key reserves in this one. Gibson contributed on both ends of the floor, scoring six first-half points and helping out on defense and the boards. He finished with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Robinson chipped in with five points and three boards against his former team.
Aside from Belinelli, Thibodeau stayed with his starters for much of the game and they got the job done.
Tom Thibodeau, Bulls: A
Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the NBA. He's the only coach in NBA history to win the most games in the league in each of his first two seasons. Last year, he became the fastest coach to 100 career victories, attaining the mark in his 130th game (per NBA.com's media notes).
The Bulls held the Knicks under 30-percent shooting in the first half, while their own ball movement helped them convert over 57 percent of their field goals. That was enough to put the Knicks to sleep, though they did shoot better in the second half and closed the gap to five points late in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls dominated the entire game and controlled both ends of the floor. Thibodeau didn't dip into his bench too much, as the Knicks made it a bit close for comfort at the end. But it was little more than a sorely needed opportunity to cheer for the Madison Square Garden crowd.
The Bulls are starting to jell, and they don't even have Derrick Rose back yet. This will be a dangerous team come playoff time.
Mike Woodson, Knicks: C
It's hard to gauge just how much responsibility Woodson should bear for the loss, especially considering the injuries to the roster. The Knicks shot very poorly from the field all game, which is hard to blame on the coach.
Woodson spiced up the lineup for the second half, sliding Carmelo Anthony to the 4 for a bit, if only just to get him away from the red-hot Luol Deng. He also used more James White and essentially replaced Jason Kidd with Pablo Prigioni for the second half, but the Bulls' defense and rebounding were more than enough to keep any Knicks comeback at bay.
The Knicks have hit a minor skid, and Woodson will need to get his team focused while they wait for the roster to get healthy. Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert should return in a few weeks, and it can't come soon enough. As for the Knicks' ailing big men, their outlook is more uncertain. But Kurt Thomas is not the answer.
Note: All statistics are accurate as of Jan. 11, 2013.