The Chicago Bulls are coming to Madison Square Garden in a near must-win scenario as they try to make it to the play-in tournament while the New York Knicks fight to hold on to the fourth seed.
The New York Knicks (34-28) are playing the Chicago Bulls (26-35) in a game where both teams are fighting for their respective seeding in the Eastern Conference. New York is hoping to create a gap between them and the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks while Chicago is hoping to jump into play-in contention. Tip-off at Madison Square Garden is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.
There will be a weight off the shoulders of the Knicks, as their nine-game win streak came to an end at the hands of Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns in their last outing.
But not all the weight—it’s looking like the four-five playoff matchup will be two of New York, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Boston Celtics. With a two-game lead over the latter, New York is in the driver’s seat to stay above the play-in bracket. They just have to stay strong in these final games.
How are the Bulls doing?
The first piece of business to mention is the availability of Zach LaVine, who has missed several games since entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols. According to Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, LaVine isn’t with the team on this current road trip and he doesn’t have a set timeline for return.
Despite adding All-Star center Nikola Vucevic at this year’s trade deadline, LaVine is still the Bulls’ best player and the one who would pose the biggest threat to the Knicks’ defense.
Surprisingly, since LaVine’s absence began, the Bulls have gone 4-3, racking up wins against Cleveland, Boston, Charlotte, and Miami—not the easiest of competition. In that time frame, Vucevic has been his usual efficient self, averaging 22.1 points per contest while shooting 53.3% from the floor and 44.7% from behind the arc on 5.4 attempts a night.
Coby White has been thrust into more of a scoring role, averaging 19.1 points a night in the seven games since LaVine was sidelined.
Sitting one game behind the 10th-seeded Washington Wizards entering tomorrow’s matchup, there’s no reason for the Bulls to take the foot off the gas as they shoot for a bid for postseason basketball.
How can the Knicks win?
Some of the best news the Knicks can hear before this matchup is that Chris Paul doesn’t play for Chicago. He scored seven straight points to close out their matchup two nights ago, putting an end to their streak.
Despite the loss, the Knicks are still as hot as ever in this stretch. In the past two weeks, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks have had the most efficient offense in the entire league, scoring 122.8 points per 100 possessions, and the second-highest point differential.
It was their defense that let them down against the Suns as New York still finished the night shooting over 50% from the floor and over 40% from three. Also, Julius Randle had a poor game (for his standards), shooting 6-of-17 from the field and R.J. Barrett shot 7-for-18.
This is all with Alec Burks, who continues to miss time, including this matchup with the Bulls. In his stead, Reggie Bullock has shot the hell out of the ball, putting in 43.6% of his 7.8 three-point attempts per night during the win streak and the Phoenix game.
One key point to watch out for this matchup is the two big men Chicago employs in their starting lineup—Vucevic and fellow trade-deadline acquisition Daniel Theis. Potentially making up for Vucevic’s lack of skill on defense, the Bulls have been playing two traditional centers from the tip.
Randle, a much more mobile big, should be able to either run circles around the two when he has the ball or stretch one out on the perimeter when he doesn’t have it.
One final point to look for
Obi Toppin has strung together some fine games as the ninth man on this roster, tallying six and nine points in his past two games respectively, and looking … fine.
Nice defense from Obi to help force the turnover
We’ve been seeing a lot of positives on that end from him recently 🤫 pic.twitter.com/21dj35JYPc
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 24, 2021
Without getting too excited from a teeny tiny sample size, he’s giving the Knicks a different look at the four position with his leaping abilities.
Alec Burks has returned from a stint on the NBA’s health and safety protocols, per the team:
Alec Burks is no longer in health and safety protocols and has rejoined the team.
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) April 28, 2021