For a lot of basketball fans, their fondest memories are etched in stone by immortal superstars.
LeBron James fans have had a plethora of images that they can go to when asked about iconic moments – his postseason performances with the Miami Heat against the Boston Celtics and the iconic block against Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, to name a few. Even Golden State Warriors fans feel on top of the world when they talk about Steph Curry triples, Kevin Durant daggers, and epic Klay Thompson quarters where he outscores teams all by his lonesome.
Those are all well and good. But what about fans of teams that have had a lot of hard luck over the past few years? What about fans of the New York Knicks before the Julius Randle renaissance, or Sacramento Kings followers who have missed the postseason for a record number of years?
And what about Chicago Bulls fans? Their last trip to the NBA Finals was 23 years ago, during the apex of Michael Jordan. What memories do they have?
Well, let me tell you. While LeBron fans eagerly watch the King celebrating and flexing all over the floor, Bulls fans have Derrick Rose casually cocking back a two-handed tomahawk slam on Goran Dragic. They have putback slams from Taj Gibson, incessant trolling by Joakim Noah, and a gravelly voiced Tom Thibodeau screaming “ICE!” for 24 basketball minutes before losing his voice at halftime.
Yes, the 2010-2011 Chicago Bulls were one of the greatest teams in franchise history, and came so agonizingly close to a return to the Finals. However, those Bulls teams were merely bullet points in the ascension to glory of LeBron James, as what happens when you go up against once-in-a-generation players. A season later, when Rose crumpled to the floor with a torn ACL in the first round of the playoffs, it was all over. Yes, he would return to action, but for all intents and purposes, the Bulls would never be the same again, never on the level of other contenders in the league.
So why do we bring up the Bulls in the midst of the NBA Playoffs a decade later? Why bring up any of those seemingly insignificant memories? Do they even matter right now?
If you’ve watched the New York Knicks in the ongoing playoffs, you would know that they matter, somehow.
Since being selected to lead the Knicks back to relevancy, Thibodeau has done everything he could to awaken the spirit of those gritty, relentless, and offensively challenged Bulls. The Knicks today do not overwhelm you with offense beyond Julius Randle, the way that Chicago leaned so much on Derrick Rose. They pin their fortunes on the defensive end, and dare you to let your offense overcome their defense. That’s a hallmark of Thibs with Chicago. All the great teams he had under him understood that they had to make the game dirty, ugly, and grimy for them to have a chance at winning. If it was a shootout, the odds were low that a victory was coming.
The Knicks completely revamped their identity this season under Thibs. They have transformed into a team that sprints just a little bit faster on the defensive end, boxes out with more certainty, and switches and rotates faster than your average garden variety NBA team. That’s been the main reason for New York’s turnaround, and a lot of credit should be given to Thibs’ imprint on the team.
But for his system to work, Thibodeau needed the right type of players. That’s why Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson are on the squad. Come to think of it, they shouldn’t be playing significant roles on a playoff team in 2021. The Knicks backcourt is filled with talented youngsters like Immanuel Quickley, while the frontcourt is rock solid with Nerlens Noel and Randle. But in the midst of Game 2, with the Atlanta Hawks threatening to go up 2-0 on the road at Madison Square Garden, Thibs decided to go with what he’s certain of: inserting Rose and Gibson to start the third quarter.
That proved to be the difference. The Knicks rallied back, behind a brilliant performance from Rose who delivered 26 points, four assists, and four rebounds. He top-scored for his team, which is incredible given everything that he had been through in the past. Worries about Rose’s durability were put to rest, as he played 39 minutes and became the catalyst for the Knicks’ comeback.
DRose's words after the game were absolutely inspiring: “I’ve been dreaming about this moment for a long time. In the past, people said I couldn’t play the minutes… but I knew all along and how much hard work I put into it.”
Those are heavy words for the youngest MVP in league history, and they show just how much these moments matter to him, especially after all the lost seasons and years in basketball purgatory.
And while Rose got all the shine, Gibson was just as valuable. Battling against frontcourt players a decade younger than him, Taj showed the determination that made him such a fan favorite with the Bulls. He was up to his veteran tricks – battling for loose balls and dribbling them outside for extra possessions, even ramming putback jams that got the Knicks fans at the Garden even more rabid. Those were the moments that fall beneath the cracks, but make Gibson such an awesome teammate.
"It’s so surreal," Gibson said. "Like I tell the young guys who wake up and may not know where the path’s gonna lead them, where the game’s gonna take them, just trust your heart.”
That trust in themselves has brought them back at the forefront, in one of the most compelling series in the playoffs. The Knicks will be on the road against the Hawks at the Highlight Factory, and Atlanta has shown they have more than enough offensive firepower to take down New York.
But rest assured, the Knicks aren’t going to make things easy. Not when the DNA of those gloriously ugly but beautiful Chicago Bulls teams courses through the Knicks' veins through Thibs, Rose, and Gibson. Randle is still the key to New York's success, but the reunited trio have helped sharpen and mold it.
“I’m playing with Derrick, who I’ve been playing with my whole career. We have the same familiar faces, but now we’re in New York City,” said Gibson. “God doesn’t make many mistakes, man. You just got to follow your path. You gotta believe in yourself. Stay the course. The course is always going to be rocky. But you just gotta stay the course and believe in yourself.”