There were no fans allowed in at the United Center Wednesday night as the Knicks and Bulls matched up for the second time in three nights, so no chance for the local crowd to express their opinion on the return of Tom Thibodeau to the sidelines in the city.
But what there was even without the crowd was a lesson of what the Bulls once had and what they haven’t had since. Two nights after the Knicks fell to the Bulls, they faced off in the rematch and while the names on the jerseys were the same the Knicks looked like a completely different group.
The difference was that Thibodeau’s team adjusted to what the Bulls had done Monday and simply took it away. The scoring of Lauri Markkanen? Gone. The three-point barrage? Out. And the hard-working group that outhustled the Knicks? Forget it. The Knicks built a 19-point lead in the first quarter and held it in double figures much of the way until a late Bulls’ run as the Knicks held on for a 107-103 victory.
"I think it’s huge. It’s important I think to play from a lead," Thibodeau said. "I thought we did that and obviously in every game there’s some things you do well and other things you don’t do as well as you would like. Closing out the quarter I want us to do better with that. Overall, I thought we guarded the line really well. The rebounding was good. The turnovers were high, we’ve got to clean that up, but I’m very pleased to get the win."
Thibodeau had bemoaned the Knicks start of the game Monday and the lackadaisical effort out of the intermission. This time the Knicks raced out to a quick lead. The thrust first came from an unlikely source as Elfrid Payton scored 10 quick points, and then from a reliable source, Julius Randle draining three straight three-point field goals in a span of 55 seconds.
It was the starting five who did the job this time for the Knicks. Payton, who has been playing poorly — shooting just 31% and 11.1% from three over the previous five games, scored 20 points, including the quick 10 in the first quarter. Randle had a game-high 27 points.
"We need everyone," Thibodeau said. "Elfrid’s strengths are his defense, running the team, being an opportunistic scorer. So I thought he was very aggressive. Everyone has confidence in him. Play as hard as you can. Some nights it’s his night. Some nights it’s someone else’s night. And that’s what I love about our team. We have to share in that and we have to do it together."
Randle also talked about Payton. "If you look at the trends of our wins, when we play well, he plays well," Randle said. "We need him to do that. We all feed off of it when he’s aggressive like that. It don’t even have to be scoring, just his aggressive nature. We need more of that from EP. He’s great when he’s like that."
But the Bulls struggled all night, shooting just 6-for-36 from beyond the arc. LaVine was 0-for-7 from three-point range and Markkanen, who had scored 30 Monday, was 0-for-4 and scored just nine points.
Still, the Bulls made a late run after trailing by 18 with an Austin Rivers three-pointer to start the fourth quarter. Chicago brought it all the way back to three points at 99-96, after a Markkanen backdoor cut. But Denzel Valentine missed a shot in the lane and after Reggie Bullock hit an open corner three on a kickout from Randle.
The Knicks saw the lead slip to three again in the final seconds as a scramble of turnovers back and forth brought it to 106-103 before Immanuel Quickley converted a free throw with .8 seconds remaining.