NEW YORK — Explaining a rhyme or reason to the Bulls season is like figuring out what the Knicks’ plan is for the long-term, or playing trivia on where players like Maurice Ndour and Mindaugas Kuzminskas went to school.
But those were the players taking the Bulls to school, when the Bulls were the ones who apparently had something to play for, when they came in on a season-high four game winning streak.
Like most other times when the Bulls had quick highs, the lows came hard and fast as the New York Knicks completed a season sweep of the Bulls with a 100-91 win at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.
In position to actually come within a game of the Milwaukee Bucks for fifth seed in the East, they played like they’d rather be in Bora Bora come April 13 with a woeful performance that seemingly stretched all night.
They broke trends they established during the win streak such as 3-point shooting and dominating the glass, getting beat by a 53-36 margin on the boards and shooting six of 23 from the 3-point line.
The rebound disparity caused the usually-mild Fred Hoiberg to unleash an expletive in his postgame media session.
“Tonight we just got our asses kicked on the boards and you’re not going to win when you have an effort like that,” Hoiberg said. “Look at the numbers on the glass, that tells you everything you need to know. They had their way with us. It’s not how you win games.”
After trading baskets to start the game, the offense slowed to a crawl and the Bulls didn’t fall back on their defense to keep them in it.
“We gotta let our defense lead to our offense instead of our offense go to our defense,” said Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls with 26 points and four assists. “It looks good when we’re making shots, but you can’t rely on that every single night like you want to. You gotta guard, rebound, get loose balls.”
The Bulls shot 38 percent, a number that was inflated by a late comeback that made the game look respectable—although they didn’t perform like a team that respected its opponent.
“We didn’t come out with the fire we needed to,” Butler said. “They came out like they were playing for something and we didn’t. They whipped our tail in every aspect of the game.”
Yes, Carmelo Anthony returned after an injury and contributed 18 points, including a highlight-reel crossover on Nikola Mirotic and triple from 30 feet, but it was more of the lesser-known Knicks who delivered the blows to the Bulls.
Like Kuzminskas, who probably gave Hoiberg a conniption on the sideline with his easy drive past Bobby Portis and dunk over Joffrey Lauvergne in the third quarter.
Like Ndour, who trapped and agitated and ran the floor to the tune of 12 points and 10 rebounds—only playing because the Knicks want to get an extended look of their young players, as playoff possibilities are far out of reach.
Or Justin Holiday, who took the place of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as former Bulls who came back to torture their former teams. Holiday was only a Bull for a short time before being shipped with Rose to New York right before the draft but fit the bull of young and athletic, scoring 12 off the bench.
With the last four games against teams like the Knicks—out of the playoffs and giving players an opportunity to prove themselves, the Bulls can’t let their guard down if they hope to play beyond 82 games.
“The next three teams we play are gonna play as hard as any team in the league,” Hoiberg said. “They’re gonna play free, they’re gonna play loose. We gotta come prepared and we gotta come ready.”
And an old bugaboo reared its head again, as Robin Lopez pointed to a lack of accountability on the defensive end.
“It’s an accountability issue. We gotta stay on each other’s backs,” Lopez said. “Keep reminding each other how important each one of these individual games are.”
But given they’ve been at this exercise since October, expecting the light to magically appear doesn’t seem realistic.
“That’s a very good point. We’ve been up and down all season long and that’s when you want to build good habits,” Lopez said. “We’ve done a good job holding each other accountable this past stretch and we didn’t see that tonight. It’s something we have to keep up as we go into the playoffs—if we go into the playoffs.”
The second quarter was as bad a display of basketball as you’ll see, given the plight of the Knicks and the alleged newfound life that had been on display from the Bulls. Perhaps the fatigue played a part but if fatigue could talk, it would tell the Bulls not to use him as a scapegoat as they played their third game in four nights.
Butler even had his moments, although he tried to bring the Bulls back from the dead in the second half. But Paul Zipser went scoreless and Rajon Rondo was a minus-21 when he was on the floor. Denzel Valentine went scoreless, missing his six shots.
Whenever you think you have a handle on these Bulls and they’ve found something, an old layer revealed itself and you feel silly for believing anything, one way or the other.