Wendell Carter Jr. returned but the Knicks snapped a six-game losing streak at the expense of the Bulls. Some observations as the season continues to spiral:

Wendell Carter Jr. is back... But a little rusty

Wendell Carter Jr.’s first game back from an ankle sprain that has kept him out since Jan. 6 began with a bang. He did this to Elfird Peyton 20 seconds in: 

A modicum of rust set in from there as Taj Gibson bullied the Bulls to seven points in three rebounds (two offensive) in the first 3:49 of the first quarter. Carter seemed to settle in as the game went along. He finished the night with six points and nine rebounds on 1-for-5 shooting in 18 minutes — a hair below his stated 21 to 22 minute restriction. Notably, Carter didn’t play down the stretch, which he attributed to not being in a groove timing-wise all game. It’s good to have him back but he’s clearly still finding his legs.

"I thought he had some moments when he looked like Wendell. I thought he had some moments when he looked like he was in preseason still. That's part of it," Boylen said. "We'll take it for the first night. He made it through without any setbacks, which is good, and we'll move forward."

"I got winded pretty quickly. I tried to train and get prepared for it but there's nothing like playing out in the game," Carter said, adding that his ankle felt OK, but certain movements still give him trouble. 

Denzel Valentine made a return from a seven-game absence tonight, too. He scored all eight of his points in a 62-second stretch at the end of the third quarter, which the Bulls won 33-23, but only logged 10 minutes.

The Knicks size gave the Bulls fits

Carter’s re-insertion into the starting lineup ultimately did little to help the Bulls’ recent issues on the interior (and that’s nothing to ‘hot take’ over yet). The Knicks outscored the Bulls 76-40 in the paint (shooting 72.3% at the rim), outrebounded them 50-33 (pulling down 17 offensive boards) and tallied a whopping 32 second chance points. That was the difference in the game. 

"It definitely bothers me as a player," Carter said of the disparity down low. "I just feel like that's just a recipe for disaster, and if we can't be tougher as a team, we're gonna lose that battle every time."

Meanwhile, the Bulls shot just 17-for-32 (53.1%) at the rim and 3-for-14 (21.4%) from midrange — a mark that will undoubtedly displease head coach Jim Boylen. That marred a fine shooting night from 3-point range for the visitors (17-35) and a game that saw the Bulls turn 17 Knicks turnovers into 29 points — normally, a formula for success.

That 76 points in the paint is a new opponent season-high against the Bulls, and the Knicks reached 125 points for just the fourth time this season, shooting 55.3% from the floor. They entered the night the 29th-rated offense in the NBA and 26th in team field goal percentage.

"Their physicality, their size was hard on us," Boylen said. "It's disappointing."

RJ Barrett and Coby White traded blows

This game saw two top-seven picks in the 2019 draft, RJ Barrett and Coby White, square off. There weren’t too many moments that saw the two go shot-for-shot, but both got theirs in time.

Barrett notched 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting by game’s end, and in a second quarter that saw the Knicks build a 13-point halftime advantage, he tallied 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting (2-for-2 from deep). In that stretch, he had the Bulls defense on a string, especially in capping a 16-2 run to close the first half with this stepback triple:

 

White’s statline rivaled Barrett’s by night’s end, though he accumulated some of his figures with the game out of reach, late. White finished with 22 points on 7-for-17 (4-for-8 from deep), snagged two steals and got to the foul line four times, too. It’s White’s fourth 20-point game in a row, and a performance worth continuing to build on. 

In a game he was a gametime decision for, he logged 29 minutes and didn’t appear hampered by his back-tweak — also encouraging.

"For me, I wanted to play," White said when asked if he was uncertain if he'd play. "I've been getting a lot of treatment over the last couple days, and this morning I woke up and felt pretty good... In the game, I didn't feel anything, everything pretty much was smooth."

Twenty games under-.500 alert

God bless you, K.C.

At 20-40, that’s where the Bulls reside. They entered play 15-6 against Eastern Conference lottery teams and 0-19 vs. playoff teams. With this defeat in the rearview mirror, 17 of the team’s final 22 games are against current playoff squads. The Bulls’ habit of losing to good teams is well-documented, but the recent trend of falling to bad ones too — with the caveat of injuries piling up — is discouraging. The Knicks hop off a six-game schneid with the victory, the Bulls have now dropped 10 of their last 11.

The bright side is that Carter and Valentine are back, and hopefully Porter, Markkanen and Hutchison aren’t too far behind (though we don’t have a clear timeline on any of them yet). Zach LaVine pouring in 26 points and 7 assists, and Daniel Gafford providing a solid 12 points and two blocks on 5-for-6 in 19 minutes off the bench also qualify as silver linings. But it all rings hollow for now.

Next up: Luka Doncic and the Mavericks come to town on Monday.