After winning seven straight games last month, the New York Knicks have lost eight of their last 11 while overnight star Jeremy Lin has averaged 18.3 points, 8.1 assists and 3.9 turnovers during that stretch. They are losers of five contests in a row, giving New York media and fans plenty of reasons to criticize them, and have an 18-23 record heading into Monday night's nationally televised tilt at the United Center.
However, listening to Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau break down the Knicks, you would hardly know that Mike D'Antoni's team is seemingly fading fast in the second half of this compressed 66-game regular season.
"They put a lot of points up on the board," Thibodeau told reporters after the Bulls' 111-97 victory over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, when asked about the Knicks. "They've added a lot of talent, they're playing well, and you've got to be ready to go from the start of the game against them. They push the ball. It's not only Lin, but Baron Davis is healthy now. Carmelo [Anthony] and [Amar'e] Stoudemire are two very dynamic scorers. You can't overlook a guy like [Landry] Fields. [Steve] Novak has been playing great for them. ... They're deep and they're good. So we have to be ready."
Of course, Thibodeau routinely praises his squad's opponent and has some familiarity with the Knicks, having served as an assistant coach in New York from 1996-2003. In both teams' last matchup, the Bulls won 105-102 at Madison Square Garden. This time around, the Knicks will feature Lin, whom Bulls players are intrigued to watch up close and personal.
The Knicks certainly have not met expectations so far this season, although NBA followers should give them a chance in any playoff series for the exact same reasons Thibodeau mentioned: New York has a pair of high-scoring, perennial All-Star forwards in Anthony and Stoudemire, two point guards who have the ability to push the tempo in Lin and Davis, a defensive anchor in center Tyson Chandler and a fairly deep bench that features J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Novak, among others.
For the Bulls, the injury list continues to appear like a revolving door, as Luol Deng (wrist), Joakim Noah (ill), Rip Hamilton (shoulder) and C.J. Watson (ankle) all missed Saturday's game.
While Hamilton will sit out Monday, Noah -- who didn't have a fever when he was on the bench wearing warmups during the Bulls' rout of the Jazz, but he just didn't feel well enough to play, according to Thibodeau -- is probable and Deng and Watson are most likely game-time decisions. The guess here, though, is that Deng, whose injured left wrist has produced unmanageable pain lately, misses the game -- which would mean that Kyle Korver would again start in his place -- and returns for Wednesday night's highly anticipated rematch against the Miami Heat.
Still, the Bulls have repeatedly shown they can effectively execute Thibodeau's game plan -- injuries or not.
"Everybody stepped up," forward Carlos Boozer told the assembled media. "I think we've got a group of guys that believe in each other no matter who's out there that we can win ... so I'm very proud of our guys."
The Bulls' offense was a well-oiled machine Saturday evening, piling up 31 assists on 43 baskets and shooting a blistering 55.8 percent from the field. But they committed 15 turnovers, six of which by Derrick Rose, and have now allowed an average of 100 points in the last three games. Chicago gave up 56 second-half points against the Jazz and knows it will have to tighten up defensively when the Knicks and Lin come to town.
"I thought there were stretches where we were a little careless with the ball," said Thibodeau, who also believed that the Bulls unselfishly shared the ball. "We've got to clean that up. And defensively, I didn't like us at all. That's something we have to correct."
Boozer finding groove: Amid all the Bulls' injuries, Boozer has remained a consistent member of Thibodeau's lineup. He has played -- and started -- all 43 games this season and is averaging 15.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 30 minutes per contest. He already has 18 steals and 17 blocks, both of which one less than he had in 59 games a season ago.
Boozer has dropped a combined 53 points on 25-for-37 shooting in his last two contests. He has also drained 15 jumpers during that span. On Saturday, the 6-foot-9 veteran poured in a game-high 27 points and played over 40 minutes for just the second time this year.
"He had a good rhythm going and once he gets in rhythm, he's a great shooter from 17 feet," Thibodeau told reporters when asked about Boozer. "You have to close at him and he has the ability to put it down on the floor. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now."
Butler's extended run: With Deng out against the Jazz, Bulls rookie Jimmy Butler played a season-high 28 minutes and dropped eight points and five rebounds. Thibodeau admitted afterward that Butler could very well receive more action as the season wears on, which would give the Bulls another long-armed defender to plug on their opponents' best scorers.
"As I've said from the start of the season, his attitude and approach are great," Thibodeau said. "He works at it every day. The practices are his games and he stays ready. And this is the second time he's had an opportunity and he did a good job."