The recent inconsistency with All-Star point guard Derrick Rose in and out of the lineup due to injuries makes New York Knicks backup Jared Jeffries believe that the Chicago Bulls are the better potential first-round matchup in the playoffs.
"I still think the Bulls," Jeffries said Friday afternoon on ESPN New York 1050's "Ruocco & Lundberg." "Whenever you can have an MVP candidate or former MVP player be out on the team, I think that's what you've got to go for. I mean, they're still playing very well without him, but I'm not sure over a seven-game series they can keep that high level of playing without Derrick Rose."
While the Bulls haven't flinched recently in the top spot in the East, the Knicks have been pretty much stationary as the eighth seed for several weeks. And both teams continue to play at a high level. The Knicks are 12-4 since coach Mike Woodson took over on March 14, and the Bulls are 9-4 since March 12 in games without Rose. In fact, the Bulls are 16-7 this season with an inactive Rose, and they beat the second-seeded Miami Heat in overtime Thursday night 96-86 when he played at less than 100 percent.
Even if Rose does regain full strength before the playoffs start, Jeffries is "very confident" the Knicks can upset the Bulls or Heat in the first round.
"I think that we've shown that if we come out with the focus that we've had over the last two weeks, we can play with anybody," he said. "We've done a great job defensively of locking in and following a game plan. And then when it comes down to offense, when you put a guy like Carmelo (Anthony) and Amare (Stoudemire) out there, that's the last of your worries of scoring the ball. If you can get stops, those guys will find a way to score."
What does worry Jeffries is New York's occasional drop-off in pace and energy on offense, which directly ties to the Knicks not having Jeremy Lin in the lineup. The team is sorely missing a healthy point guard who can push that tempo. Instead, with the hobbled Baron Davis as the starting point guard, the team has been forced to play more grind-out, halfcourt-style basketball, where scoring has become a tougher task. The new system has encouraged J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields to all look to dribble-drive and pound the ball inside, but they don't always capitalize and then the offense has to be reset. That's one of the main reasons why Anthony has been relied on more to make consistent plays.
"I can definitely say that one of our larger concerns is just finding a rhythm," Jeffries said, "because the same guys that were out there who were winning when we put up 115 points some nights, then have a hard time scoring and put up 80 points. ... Whenever we move the ball up the court quicker, we take good open shots. Even if they don't go in initially, we'll make those shots, and if we keep doing that I think our offense will come around."
What's obviously key for the Knicks to make a legitimate push against the Bulls or Heat is for the team to be healthy. The good news is that Jeffries said he had a checkup on Friday on his right knee and he's "getting a whole lot better." While he still has to currently maintain 10 to 15 minutes per game, he believes he'll be fine for the postseason. In addition, Jeffries said Stoudemire, who is nursing an injured back, is working hard to return next week, which would enable him to play the final four or five games of the season.
Regarding Lin, Jeffries said he believes the 23-year-old wants to be back on the court for the playoffs, and that his looming free agency has nothing to do with him having to sit out for an extended period of time.
"Anybody that knows him knows that he loves the game of basketball and he loves to play and loves being out there with his teammates," he said. "He wants to feel that playoff atmosphere. I know he does."
Jeffries also said that Tyson Chandler is deserving of defensive player of the year and that Mike Woodson should definitely be considered for the Knicks' coaching job next season.
"I think that he's shown that he has a good reputation in the league as being a good coach," he said. "He's shown a way to connect with his team. Guys are playing hard under him, playing at a very high level, so you have to consider him for next year. I think it would be unfair not to do that, just because Mike has done an incredible job of getting the best out of a lot of different players. And I think it would be unfair to him not to consider him next year."
Friday night marks a great opportunity for the Knicks to solidy their hold on a playoff spot, as they're playing the 14-44 Washington Wizards. It's another important game because the Philadelphia 76ers, who remain the seventh seed, are playing a similar struggling team, the 21-38 New Jersey Nets. The Knicks do not want to fall another game behind the Sixers, because then the Heat and Boston Celtics come to town on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively.
Jared Zwerling is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.