The talent discrepancy hasn’t mattered much to the Tom Thibodeau-coached Knicks the last few seasons.
It’s almost as though the Knicks had accepted that, on paper, the Bulls had a more gifted roster but also one that was a bit soft. The Bulls were show dogs.
But the Knicks learned Sunday that’s no longer the case. Thanks to a harassing defense from the start, the undersized Bulls ended a three-game losing streak at the hands of Thibodeau and the Knicks with a 109-103 victory.
Is the Bulls’ physicality and toughness where coach Billy Donovan wants it? Not yet, but it’s getting there. And beating the Knicks showed that.
‘‘I think we’ve made strides,’’ Donovan said. “I think one of the things for us, especially with [center Nikola Vucevic] being out, we’ve been undersized at the center spot at times. As far as competing and battling, I feel like we have gotten better in that area as the year has gotten on. Do I think there’s room for improvement? Do I think we can be more consistent and better? Yeah, I do.’’
The Bulls started the game with a bark and a bite defensively, then let things slip a bit in the third quarter before being resilient enough to play winning basketball in crunch time to improve to 12-5.
Meanwhile, the news on Vucevic’s return was also good. Donovan said he had cleared the testing aspect of the coronavirus health-and-safety protocols and now needed to get through the cardiovascular testing before he can return.
That could happen at some point this week.
‘‘He is out of isolation,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘He’ll be cleared when the doctors feel comfortable that he’s passed everything.’’
The fact that the Bulls have gone 4-2 without him says a lot, especially the style in which they have done it. That was on dsiplay from the opening tip, as Donovan opted to go with feisty guard Alex Caruso against Knicks power forward Julius Randle, despite the obvious size difference.
Randle was 5-for-7 from the field in the first half but also committed five turnovers as Caruso pestered him at every opportunity.
‘‘To be a great defender, you’ve got to have great feet, and he’s got great feet,’’ Donovan said of Caruso. ‘‘He’s physical, he’s not afraid to put his nose in there and he’s smart. He’s got all the tools.’’
The Bulls didn’t make life easy on themselves in the third quarter, though. The Knicks went on a 13-3 run midway through the quarter to grab a 74-72 lead.
But thanks to Coby White making some key three-pointers in the fourth, as well as Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan continuing to play the role of closers from the free-throw line, the Bulls passed Knicks and never looked back. DeRozan and LaVine combined to make eight free throws in a row to keep the Knicks chasing late.
‘‘Everyone could use a game like [Sunday], especially coming off an injury,’’’ White said of his performance after a five-month layoff from shoulder surgery. ‘‘Just trying to find my way.’’
DeRozan finished with 31 points and LaVine with 21.