NEW YORK — Most preseason predictions had the Bulls slated in to be title contenders, while many had the Knicks pegged as a team that would struggle, while waiting to attempt to add talent in free agency next summer.
Opening night at Madison Square Garden did nothing to disprove those notions, and provided strong affirmations instead.
Behind dominant performances from Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson, and a relatively minimal contribution from Derrick Rose, Chicago cruised to a 104-80 victory after leading by as many as 35 points in the second half.
The Knicks started Shane Larkin at point guard after Jose Calderon was a late scratch with a calf injury that has been bothering him throughout the preseason. Amar’e Stoudemire also got the start, after coming off the bench exclusively for the Knicks in preseason action. Head coach Derek Fisher gave a long non-answer when asked for his reason why, but Stoudemire rewarded him for his decision early with an eight-point first quarter on 4-of-4 shooting.
New York started just fine, running the newly-installed Triangle Offense in a manner that could be described as clunky at best, but yielded decent enough results through the game’s first 10 minutes.
As soon as the reserves came in, however, the Knicks completely fell apart, while the Bulls showcased some of the depth they added this summer in taking control of the game, before running away with it entirely.
Pau Gasol looked completely rejuvenated in his first game with the Bulls, and showcased an aggressiveness and a level of skill on the offensive end of the floor that was reminiscent of his days as an All-Star in Los Angeles. Gasol finished with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting, to go along with 11 rebounds in just 29 minutes of action.
As great as Gasol played, Taj Gibson may have been even better.
The Knicks only had Jason Smith and Quincy Acy to throw at Gibson, and neither was close to being any match. He scored 10 of his 22 points in the second period, as the Bulls reserves pushed the lead to 15 points before New York’s starters temporarily slowed the inevitable tide.
“He was the best player in training camp, the best player in the preseason games,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Gibson afterward. “He just goes out there and does his job. … He lets his performance speak for itself, and that’s the way it should be.”
The reserves for the Knicks were, in a word, brutal. The offense in that second quarter consisted primarily of midrange jumpers, which came either off the dribble or were forced up in isolation after only a single pass. The Triangle Offense wasn’t abandoned entirely as the game progressed, but running it appeared to become an afterthought, and multiple possessions would go by before it would occur to the unit in place to once again give it a shot.
Rose, meanwhile, looked much the same way he did while playing for Team USA this summer. His signature speed and explosiveness were evident at times, and while he finished just 3-of-7 shooting, he was able to get into the lane and to the free throw line eight times.
“He’s got to shake that rust off,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “Offensively, I thought he was attacking well, and defensively, he’s got to keep working at it. It isn’t going to happen overnight. He’s got to keep pushing.”
Rose was surprised he wasn’t needed on this night, and seemed a little disappointed he didn’t get more time to play under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in a nationally televised contest.
“I think this is the first time I’ve ever played in a league where the first game I only played 20-something minutes,” Rose said. “I only had 13 points. I thought for sure tonight I was going to have a little time in the fourth quarter in The Garden, but the game got kind of out of hand and Thibs didn’t call us back in.”
There was no need. This Knicks team has neither the talent nor the cohesiveness to present much of a challenge to these Bulls. It was what was expected before the season began, but the strengths and weakness of both teams became all the more glaring when facing one another in a head-to-head matchup.
“We played the game the right way,” Gibson said. “Our bench really came in and played with a lot of fire. We’ve got a lot of firepower in that second unit, and we just ran with it. And once our starters got themselves going, it was a different ballgame.
“Everybody understood the matchups, and everybody understood the defensive sets that Thibs wanted us to run,” he said. “And we just flourished.”