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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Knicks-Bulls matchup an unexpected big early showdown

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In recent years, this would’ve been a snoozefest, even this early in the season. Two losing teams going nowhere that would end up in the lottery.

But times appear to be changing for both franchises. The Knicks ended an eight-year playoff drought last year. The Bulls showed improvement, notching their highest winning percentage since they last reached the postseason in 2017.

And they are both off to strong starts entering Thursday’s intriguing matchup in Chicago. The Bulls are one of three teams still undefeated at 4-0, albeit against the Pistons, Pelicans without Zion Williamson and rebuilding Raptors. Those teams have a combined 2-9 record. The Knicks are 3-1, already owning impressive wins over the Celtics and 76ers at home and looking like a much-improved offensive team following the additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. An added wrinkle to the game is Bulls All-Star guard Zach LaVine is playing through a sprained left thumb.

This meeting could be somewhat of a measuring stick for each team, and also a fun reminder of what a great rivalry this once was back in the 1990s, in the days of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing.

Lonzo Ball and Evan Fournier
Lonzo Ball and Evan Fournier
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“Ah man, it’s unbelievable,” Walker said. “It’s unbelievable. Those guys are playing very, very well. And, you know, it’s gonna be a dogfight, for sure.”

The Bulls had a strong offseason, adding Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to their core, two players who were linked to the Knicks in the recent past. The 24-year-old Ball signed a four-year, $85 million deal in a sign-and-trade with New Orleans in the offseason. DeRozan, meanwhile, inked a three-year, $85 million deal with Chicago after being pursued by the Knicks. DeRozan is off to a fast start, averaging 22.5 points and shooting 37.5 percent from 3-point range, a weakness in his game.

The Knicks ended up going younger on the wing — Fournier is four years DeRozan’s junior and came at a cheaper price — and older at guard, with Walker instead of Ball.

Early on, both teams seem happy with their investments.

Thursday’s game will have extra meaning for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau and players Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson. It will be “Joakim Noah Night” at United Center, as the Bulls honor Noah, who retired last March after a 13-year NBA career that included an injury-marred, two-year stint with the Knicks.

“I’m thrilled for him. He’s a special guy, had an incredible career,” Thibodeau said of Noah, whom he coached with the Bulls from 2010-15. “The beauty of his game was his effort, his heart, making two, three, four, five efforts on a play. And that’s special. And then his passing is incredible. I’ve always felt that how a player passes tells you how he sees the game. If you cut and you were open, you got the ball.”

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