Kemba Walker #8 of the Knicks leaps to pass against...

Kemba Walker #8 of the Knicks leaps to pass against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on October 28, 2021 in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel

CHICAGO — Going back decades ago, the last time that the Knicks and Bulls were in this sort of position jockeying for positioning at the top of the Eastern Conference there were fights on the court and profane messages on the whiteboards, a rivalry that was must watch not only for the fan bases but for the NBA’s leadership as they readied to hand out suspensions.

It is in stark difference to what the mood was Thursday. With Joakim Noah Night being held and the Knicks stocked with remnants of the Bulls' contending teams, the event was staged to have Tom Thibodeau, who was the coach for those last Bulls’ glory days, and Noah’s teammates, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, on hand.

The only real violent act came after the final buzzer as Julius Randle grabbed the loose ball after a last-second shot by DeMar DeRozan fell short. Randle slammed the ball to the ground and caught it, frustrated and relieved after a 13-point lead had dwindled to one. But held scoreless for the final 2:59, the Knicks proved something by surviving, knocking off the unbeaten Bulls and moving into a four-way tie for first place in the East with a 104-103 win at the United Center.

"Relief, frustration, all of that.. "I didn’t throw it in the stands this time," said Randle, who was fined for doing just that after a double-overtime victory in the season opener.

"You knew there would be emotion in this game," Thibodeau said. "And that’s the challenge of getting ready to play every night. That’s a big part of winning. So the emotion of the building, the fact that they’re off to a great start, playing great basketball, we knew we were going to have to be at our best and we’re still striving to be a 48-minute team. We’re not there yet. So we know we have a lot to work on. But I thought the way we started the game, to start the game 16-6, I thought it spoke to the readiness of the team to play."

For the second straight game it was the shooting of Kemba Walker, who scored 21 points, including hitting 5 of 6 three-pointers, that carried the Knicks, while the Bulls were doing everything they could to get the ball out of Randle’s hands, limiting him to just 3-for-11 shooting. But Randle nearly managed to put together a triple-double, leading the team in assists (nine) and rebounds (16) to go with his 13 points.

While the game may not have been the sort of blood feud that the old meetings were, it did live up to the level you’d expect from a battle for first place. The Knicks' strategy of tossing up three-pointers was abandoned with Chicago chasing them off the line. And while the Knicks led the entire second half, up 13 with 2:13 to play, the Bulls chipped away and cut the gap to three on Nikola Vucevic's three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining. Walker missed a tough 8-footer and the Bulls called time with 14.8 seconds left. Zach LaVine blew through the lane for a dunk with 9.5 left, closing the gap to one.

Alec Burks' attempt to inbound after a timeout found no one open, prompting another timeout, the Knicks' final one. This time he got it in to Walker, who was fouled with 8.5 seconds left. The Knicks inbounded again and the ball was stolen, but DeRozan stepped out of bounds attempting to save the ball. They then got the ball in to Randle, who missed both free throws with 5.1 seconds left. The Bulls got the rebound and called time with 4.7 seconds left.

Chicago got what it wanted, the ball in DeRozan’s hands. But the Knicks got what they wanted to, RJ Barrett clinging to him and carefully avoiding fouling while contesting the shot. DeRozan got a good look but put up an airball as time expired.

"I watched him so much growing up in Toronto," Barrett said, "He’s always been one of my favorite players, pride and joy of Toronto. I’ve seen that shot a lot. Thankfully I was able to stay down and Mitch [Robinson] came over to help."

After the Bulls started the game up 6-2, the Knicks ran off 14 straight points. Even on the road it might have felt a little like home for the Knicks as Rose, Gibson and Thibodeau were showered with ovations and Rose even got MVP chants from the fans who remembered his heroics here as a hometown kid turned MVP. After back and forth runs, the Knicks took a 55-51 lead into the half.

It may not make this matchup take the course that the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and the Patrick Ewing Knicks embarked on and it’s hard to imagine that these two will still be at the top of the conference when the season is over. But for Thibodeau it brought to light the comparisons between his Bulls teams and the Knicks squad he helms now. The similarities may not come in style of play, but in groups that had a belief and bought into what he was preaching.

"They’re both two great basketball cities, " said Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach on the Knicks teams that battled Jordan before he compiled a .647 winning percentage in five seasons as head coach in Chicago. "So there’s great appreciation for the subtleties of the game: hustle plays, the extra pass, the effort plays, the togetherness, the teamwork, the discipline.

"I just remember how fierce the games were. Back then, there were a number of great rivalries: the Chicago-New York one, the Miami-New York one, New York-Indiana. That was a great time in the NBA. Every night was a big game, so hopefully, we can get back to that."