While the Bulls are still without their best player, Derrick Rose, their defense, especially, has made them a threat this season. The Central Division leaders at 14-10 are allowing a second-best 90.3 points per game and a third-best 32.6 3-point percentage. That's exactly how they beat the Knicks back on Dec. 8, holding them to 85 points and 34.8 percent (8-for-23) from beyond the arc. For the season, the Knicks are making nearly 12 3s per game with a second-best 40.4 percent accuracy.
Can the Bulls maintain that on Friday night? Here are three things to watch for in tonight's game, which starts at 7:30 p.m. ET:
1. Make it five in a row for 30-plus? After the Knicks beat the Nets, the losing coach, Avery Johnson, said Carmelo Anthony is "on another planet right now." Ironically, before the season started, Melo said he would be willing to sacrifice points, but that definitely hasn't happened. He's at 28.0 points per game now, and he's been gradually working his way higher. This month, he's coming off four straight games with more than 30 points, and there's no doubt he'll be at it again tonight. You can bet Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is telling his guys, "We need to win the first quarter!" That's because Anthony has a league-high 10.2 points average in the opening period, and the Knicks don't really lose a beat after that.
2. Rebound, rebound and rebound: Featuring Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, the Bulls are very active down low. They average 43.5 boards and 14.8 second-chance points per game -- both in the top 10 in the NBA. The Knicks are far down. Thibodeau, who's defensive-minded like Mike Woodson, always has a relentless quest for his team to play hard for 48 minutes. Noah, the starting center, represents his coach's mindset the best, and it trickles down to the rest of the guys.
The Knicks got back to that consistent effort in their win over the Nets this week, and they'll have to maintain their defensive principles tonight because the Bulls demonstrate the same. If the Knicks can do that, they'll have the edge with their scoring, which is where Rose's absence will come into play. While the Knicks can score inside and out, the Bulls don't get as many points from their backcourt. Deng, Boozer and Noah primarily lead the way.
3. The return of Steve Novak: The Knicks' best 3-point shooter sat out the Nets game with flu-like symptoms, but he'll be back tonight. His presence is always important because it helps them space the court better and put more pressure on the opponent, which is especially needed against a top defensive team like the Bulls. He was only 1-for-3 from downtown in the first Knicks-Bulls matchup, and he'll need to be better tonight. His makes always lead to momentum swings, especially behind the Garden crowd, and sometimes his extra points down the stretch are enough to pull away from the competition.
There's another key reason why Novak and the team's 3-point shooting will be so vital tonight. It's because Noah is arguably the best defender against roll men in the league, and Chandler likely won't have as many alley-oop looks as he did against the Nets and the slower-footed Brook Lopez. Both Noah and Chandler are long, agile and game-changers on offense and defense. No question the two of them will headline the best head-to-head bout of the evening.
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