The caboose of the NBA season has arrived. Nearly every year, the final few games for most teams serve as an opportunity to rest starters, play young players, and prepare for either the playoffs or an upcoming fishing trip.
While seeding for the Western Conference playoffs are still totally up in the air, the Eastern Conference was set in stone on Monday night. Still, the Bulls have plenty to play for as they remain a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the league's best record. The Spurs will play the Lakers Tuesday in a game Los Angeles very much needs to win to improve its own playoff seeding.
If the Bulls beat the Knicks, who by the way are the only team Chicago has not beaten this season, then the Spurs would need a win to keep home court advantage for the finals if both teams were to meet. In the "you couldn't make this stuff up" department, if the Bulls and Spurs end the season with identical records overall and versus their respective opposing conferences, then the tie-breaker for home court advantage in the biggest series of the entire season will be settled by.... wait for it... a coin flip.
Despite such idiocy from the league office, it won't mean a thing if the Bulls don't take care of business at Madison Square Garden. The Bulls and Knicks are co-owners of the league's best current winning streak, both having won seven straight games.
The Knicks have absolutely nothing to play for, having sewn up the six seed and an opening round matchup against the Boston Celtics. Star forward Amare' Stoudamire has missed the last two games for the Knicks with a sprained ankle. Asked if Stoudemire would play in either of the final two regular-season games, coach Mike D'Antoni said "I kind of hope it happens but we won't know till he says he can go." Infer from that whatever you wish, as I left my coachspeak decoder ring at home.
The Bulls are kind of between a rock and a hard place, at least as much as a top-seeded 60-win team can be, because they have players that need to be out on the floor working on their game and players that need rest before the playoffs begin. Some of those players, Joakim Noah for instance, happen to be both. ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell reported that Noah did some extra work on the side with coach Thibodeau in order to speed his return to top form. He also sat with an ice bag on his injured ankle after the session. As a fan, it makes you tear your hair out only because you know Noah needs the practice just as much as you know he needs to get entirely healthy. How can one complain about Thibodeau's decisions when you're conflicted about how to complain? Yet another reason why Thibs might be COY: he's got his critics arguing with themselves.
It's hard for Thibs to rest certain guys because the Bulls' rotations are so consistent and because injuries have kept Noah and Boozer from finding their comfort zone while on the court together. Anyway, while it's difficult to say whether rest or work is the best prescription, it is decidedly easy to predict which Thibs will choose based on how he's acted this season. Expect every Bulls to play regular minutes unless the game gets out of hand.
Knicks To Watch For
Carmelo Anthony. With Amare' Stoudamire missing two games (and possibly tonight's as well), Anthony has taken it upon himself to shoot any ball that comes into his area code. Against Indiana on Sunday, Melo went 6-13 from downtown. As Knicks' blog Posting And Toasting called it, that is known as "reckless yet effective three-point heaving". You cannot argue with the results, however, as Melo scored 34 points including a last-second game winner. Toney Douglas has played some of his best basketball against the Bulls, averaging 19 points and going 7-12 on three pointers. Chauncy Billups is still a quality player but is nursing a thigh bruise and, well, age. It would be a bit of a shock to see him play extended minutes.
Bulls To Watch For
It is time for the Bulls' post game to shoulder the load. Derrick Rose needs to have a game where he can distribute the basketball and not be called upon for another maximum effort save-the-day performance as he was against Orlando. Let's save those for the playoffs, shall we? Win or lose, a best-case scenario for the Bulls would have Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah combine for 30 points and 20 rebounds against a thin Knicks frontline that may be without its top player in Stoudamire. Taj Gibson is a Brooklyn native, as is Noah, and has been playing well lately, averaging 9.8 points and 7.2 boards in only 23 minutes over his last five games.
Above all else, Madison Square Garden remains one of the best venues in the NBA, where the lights always seem a little bit brighter. No, it isn't a playoff game and the stakes are lower than a typical regular season game. But throw in a chance for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, a revenge angle for the Christmas day loss and a dash of Broadway bright lights and you have yourself a quality matchup with plenty to tune in for.
Tip-off at the Garden for the Bulls' final road game of the regular season is at 7:00 CDT and will be televised nationally on TNT.