When the Knicks and the Bulls last met in early January, there were only 3 games separating them in the standings. Three months later, there are 9. On the strength of their 13-game winning streak, New York has rocketed above the pack in the Eastern Conference and is in a great position to lock up the No. 2 seed opposite Miami.
Chicago, meanwhile, has struggled to tread water as injuries have piled up, falling out of the race for home-court advantage in the first round. As a result, the stakes aren't that high for either team on Thursday, when the Bulls host the Knicks in a 8:00 p.m. ET game that will be nationally broadcast by TNT.
It will be an interesting contrast of styles: Chicago plays great defense and hopes to have just enough offense to scrape out a win; New York plays great offense and hopes to have just enough defense to get by. It will be a matchup of strength on strength on one side of the ball, with the Knicks ranking 3rd in offensive efficiency and the Bulls at 5th in defensive efficiency, and a matchup of weaknesses on the other, with New York at 18th in defensive efficiency and Chicago at 23rd offensively. Whoever can impose their will should have the edge, so the higher the point totals, the better chance the Knicks have and vice versa.
For New York, the big concern will be the skeleton crew on their frontline. With Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin all dealing with injuries, the Knicks have literally nothing left up front. Chris Copeland, their 29-year old rookie at 6'8 225, will likely get the bulk of the minutes at center. It's unclear whether the 6'8 230 James Singleton, whom they signed off the street on Wednesday, will be able to play, but he'll likely see big minutes if he can. Steve Novak, at 6'10 235, may have to keep the dream of the "stretch 5" alive.
They shouldn't expect much sympathy from the Bulls, who have been ravaged by injuries. At this point, few expect Rose to come back this season, but not having Taj Gibson, Luol Deng or Joakim Noah has been crippling to a Chicago team that jettisoned most of their bench in the offseason. As a result, they've had to press Nazr Mohammed, a 35-year-old they signed for spot duty against bigger centers, into a starting role. Malcolm Thomas, a 24-year-old PF who has played in a grand total of 11 NBA games in his career, is their primary frontcourt reserve. Amusingly enough, Vladimir Radmanovic still can't get on the floor for Tom Thibodeau.
Jimmy Butler vs. the Knicks' 1-2 punch
If there's been a bright spot for the Bulls this season, it has been the play of second-year forward Jimmy Butler. A 6'7, 220-pound wing whom they drafted out of Marquette with the No. 30 pick in 2011, he's become indispensable to their game plan on both sides of the ball. He's coming off a career game on Tuesday, where he had 28 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists on 10-of-12 shooting while playing all 48 minutes in their loss to the Raptors. For Chicago to have any chance on Thursday, he'll need to outplay the Knicks' wing duo Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, who are playing some of the best basketball of their careers during this win streak, on both sides of the floor.