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A rivalry rekindled? Knicks hand Bulls first loss of season

On a night in which Joakim Noah was honored, the Bulls and Knicks turned back the clock to the 1990s in a gritty, physical game between teams that feel like they’ve arrived.

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the first half of Thursday’s game against the Bulls at the United Center.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the first half of Thursday’s game against the Bulls at the United Center.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

There were players heading to the locker room with injuries, a few flagrant fouls, tempers flaring and some good old-fashioned, in-your-face playground defense.

The NBA has needed a Bulls-Knicks rivalry to be rekindled after decades of being dormant, and it might just have it.

As the Knicks’ 104-103 victory at the United Center showed, both teams are more than up-and-coming. They have arrived.

The good news is there are still three more regular-season meetings with Round 1 in the books.

No one knew that more than Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached the Bulls for five successful seasons, but was also an assistant with the Knicks when Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing were doing their tango in the 1990s.

“They’re two great basketball cities,’’ Thibodeau said. “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. It was a great time in the NBA. Every night was a big night. Hopefully we can get back to that.’’

No doubt that steps were taken in this first meeting.

The loss was the first for the Bulls this season, and also came on the same evening that the franchise was honoring Joakim Noah for his nine years in the uniform.

It was also a grit check.

Down 13 with 2:13 left, the Bulls came storming back thanks to defensive stops, as well as a clutch three-pointer by Nikola Vucevic with 40.7 seconds left that cut the lead to three. After a Kemba Walker miss, Zach LaVine took the easy dunk rather than trying to launch a three, cutting the deficit to one with 9.5 seconds left.

Julius Randle was fouled but gave the Bulls life when he shockingly missed both free throws. After the timeout to set up the final shot, LaVine inbounded it. DeMar DeRozan had the option to hand it back to LaVine but chose to drive just outside the elbow. He pump-faked and took the shot.

He missed. Everything.

“Just tried to have a little misdirection,’’ DeRozan said. “Kind of rushed it at the end. I’ll live with it. It sucks.’’

And the Knicks pulled out the win, while Thibodeau improved to 8-2 against the Bulls since they fired him.

“I think DeMar got to a good area of the floor,’’ coach Billy Donovan said of that final shot. “The play was to drive the ball. It was supposed to be either DeMar or Zach. I had no problem with what they did on the play.’’

The news didn’t get better for the Bulls, either.

Starting power forward Patrick Williams went down hard in the third quarter and left with an injured left wrist.

LaVine was playing with a torn ligament in his left thumb. It didn’t seem to hinder the All-Star guard in the first half, as he led all scorers with 17 points, but he was definitely off in the second half, adding only eight points.