Combine Carmelo Anthony with ferocious team defense and the short-handed Knicks can beat the Bulls

Novak and Anthony. (nba.com)
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It's hard to know which was more significant about the Knicks' 100-99 victory at Madison Square Garden on Sunday: The fact that they the beat the Bulls, or the way they did it.

The victory could hardly have meant more. The Knicks entered the day needing a win just to maintain any lead at all over Milwaukee for the final spot in the playoffs. By winning, combined with a Philadelphia loss later on Sunday, the Knicks entered a tie for the seventh-seed spot in the playoffs.

They needed it, since they'll have four of their next five against the Bulls and the Bucks, both on the road, and then Boston and Miami, two of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference.

And the Knicks needed to do it against a Chicago Bulls team they hadn't beaten all year, which had gotten defending league M.V.P. Derrick Rose back from injury, and to do it without the services of Jeremy Lin or Amar'e Stoudemire. The Bulls, a high-intensity team under most circumstances, had a chance to make a statement against a possible playoff opponent on that team's home floor.

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Two of the biggest shifts in a crazy Knicks season have followed games against the Bulls. On Feb. 2, the Knicks lost to Chicago, 105-102. A night later, tired of the poor point-guard play he was getting from Toney Douglas, coach Mike D'Antoni summoned Jeremy Lin, who did not play against Chicago, from the bench, starting Linsanity.

A month later, the Knicks fell to Chicago, 104-99, allowing the Bulls to gobble up 22 offensive rebounds. The game turned out to be D'Antoni's final one as coach, and under Mike Woodson, the Knicks have yet to display the sort of energy lapse they did in Chicago that night.

But the way that the Knicks won yesterday, on the strength of Carmelo Anthony and defense alone, is huge.

They raced out to a 27-6 lead, showing Chicago that even an undermanned Knicks team could play with them. It wasn't just the offensive execution that was notable, but the defensive pressure. It seemed like the Bulls were not ready for this version of the Knicks, which has been using suffocating defense to win most games while finding offensive accompaniment for Carmelo Anthony piecemeal.

Anthony was brilliant, making his first five shots, and tallying 22 points by halftime. Rose, obviously rusty after a 12-game layoff, made 1 of 6 shots from the field and committed five turnovers. But the Bulls cut the New York lead to just 53-45, thanks to a largely ineffective non-Anthony Knicks attack (the rest of the Knicks were 0-for-9 from three-point range, and just 14-for-36 overall). It looked like the Bulls had settled down, and that the second half was going to be a grim one at the Garden.

It was, for most of it. The only Knick aside from Anthony in double figures at the half, Landry Fields, didn't make a field goal after halftime. Steve Novak, incredibly, missed four three-point shots and made none. (The last time Novak took at least one three-point shot in a game but didn't make one was Jan. 7.) Toney Douglas, his effective performance against Orlando a distant memory, sat for the entire second half, while a hobbled Baron Davis was largely ineffective.

Only Iman Shumpert, who scored eight of his 15 points in the second half, gave the Knicks any real scoring efficiency. J.R. Smith kept on shooting and shooting, often finding open looks, but at one point found himself at just 3-for-17 for the game. Anthony, fighting double teams and, at times, triple teams, kept on scoring, but it didn't look to be nearly enough, with the Bulls taking a 91-81 lead with 3:45 left.

New York's improbable comeback began with Smith draining a three, refusing to let his day of errant shooting keep him from another attempt. Steals from Fields and Shumpert followed, the Knicks swarming on the defensive end with three guards, letting Tyson Chandler rebound, and allowing Carmelo Anthony to carry the offensive load. Anthony, driving layup, made it 91-86. Anthony, drive to the basket and a foul, made it 91-88 with 48 seconds to go, though he missed his free throw.

The Knicks defense at this point was on total lockdown; Chicago had simply stopped scoring.

After Luol Deng missed a pair of free throws, Anthony drew three defenders, then kicked the ball cross-court to a wide-open Novak. His three-point attempt to tie the game went fairly deep into the basket, then caromed out, seeming to end the Knicks' comeback.

Then Derrick Rose was fouled, and the league M.V.P. and 82 percent free-throw shooter was an excellent bet to make at least one free throw to extend Chicago's lead to two possessions. Instead, he missed them both.

Smith grabbed the rebound, found Anthony, who surprised the defense by firing up a long three-pointer before the Bulls had a chance to send multiple defenders. The shot was good, the game was tied, but 11 seconds remained.

The New York defense simply didn't give Rose a good shot at the basket, with his 22-footer falling harmlessly to as the clock ran out on regular time.

In overtime, the Bulls managed to take a 99-95 lead with around a minute left, with Rose making a pair of incredible plays despite Shumpert's defense, and Shumpert, Novak and Smith each missing a three. It it would need to be Anthony alone who took over the game.

The breakdown of offensive responsibility most closely resembled Game 2 of last season's playoff series against the Boston Celtics. In that game, Stoudemire exited in the second quarter with the back injury that haunts him still. Anthony was magnificent, scoring 42 points and pulling down 17 rebounds. Ultimately, Anthony was double-teamed, found Jared Jeffries for a wide-open lay-up that would have given New York the lead with seconds to go, only to see Jeffries miss it. Had the Knicks won, they could have returned to Madison Square Garden having stolen home court advantage. Instead, they were swept.

This time, Anthony needed to win or lose this game himself-on the offensive end, anyway. He somehow got to the basket through three players to cut the Chicago lead to 99-97. Then J.R. Smith stole the ball, gave it to Anthony, who attempted to tie the game himself by heading back to the basket. A stout Chicago defense forced a miss and blocked Anthony's put-back, then Chandler batted the ball out to a wide-open Smith, who calmly missed a three.

Chandler grabbed another offensive rebound--his tenth, incredibly, against the best rebounding team in the N.B.A.--and gave it back to Anthony. This time, there was no quick shot to get ahead of the defense. Anthony took his time, while the Bulls steeled themselves for one final storming of the basket by Anthony. Instead, Anthony pulled up and drained a three-pointer, his fourth of the game, to give the Knicks a one-point lead with eight seconds left.

The Bulls still had one last chance, inbounded at midcourt, and Derrick Rose drove to the basket, blanketed by Iman Shumpert. Rose, once again, didn't get nearly the shot that Anthony did, missing a baseline runner as time expired. Madison Square Garden was as loud as it has been since the Jeremy Lin games.

The Knicks had beaten the best team in the Eastern Conference, because their defense, which has been the key to the team's success under Woodson, came through again and again. It allowed the Knicks to beat the Bulls in the kind of game the Bulls rarely lose. It gave the Knicks a victory behind the kind of Carmelo Anthony performance that, until Sunday, hadn't been enough.

Now New York gets to see what a playoff series against Chicago feels like, with the two teams squaring off again on Tuesday night. Just like in the playoffs, the Knicks will face a vital game against the same opponent with little rest. And they'll need to win just to make sure they enter Wednesday's showdown in Milwaukee ahead of the Bucks, who face their own trial by hosting West-leading Oklahoma City Monday night.

With Jeremy Lin expressing doubts about returning for the first round of the playoffs, and no timetable for Amar'e Stoudemire's return, this is the group that will need to figure out how to beat a favored first-round playoff opponent. On Sunday, they showed that it's not as unlikely as it sounds.