Knicks 96, Bulls 82

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NEW YORK (AP)—For the first time in three years, the New York Knicks are going to the playoffs.

Dikembe Mutombo re-emerged as a factor in his most extensive playing time in 6 1/2 weeks, neutralizing Knicks nemesis Eddy Curry while grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking four shots in New York’s 96-82 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night.

The Knicks qualified for the playoffs when Memphis beat Cleveland 92-74.

“When it’s playoff time, this building should never be closed. It should always be open. The fans deserve that,” Knicks guard Stephon Marbury said.

There was little suspense as New York opened a big lead in the first half and coasted through the final 24 minutes, the players sneaking the occasional glance at the out-of-town scoreboard.

By the time the Cavaliers-Grizzlies game was final, many of the Knicks were already on the way out of the arena.

“We pretty much shut everybody up, and that’s the best part about it,” said Marbury, who came to the Knicks in a midseason trade as part of en extensive roster overhaul engineered by new team president Isiah Thomas.

The Knicks will probably will face Indiana, Detroit or New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs, though there’s a small chance they could advance to fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

New York improved to 22-14 against sub-.500 teams but is 15-27 against teams with winning records, including a 21-point loss at Indiana a night earlier.

“It’s just good to have accomplished a goal, because when I first got here the challenge given to me was to make the playoffs. That’s what our fans wanted, and here we are,” Thomas said.

Mutombo, who lost his starting job to Nazr Mohammed after a loss to Cleveland on Feb. 22, was playing in his second game after missing 16 straight games due to minor abdominal surgery. He helped contain the 7-foot Curry, who shot 9-for-11 and had 26 points and 14 rebounds the last time the teams met.

Curry, a 68 percent shooter in his first 10 career games against the Knicks, finished 7-for-21 from the field.

Marbury had 20 points and 12 assists for New York, which was ahead 34-25 by the time the first Memphis-Cleveland update was posted. During a timeout, Bulls coach Scott Skiles turned red in the face as he ranted at his team. But the blistering criticism did not work.

Vin Baker blocked a shot by Curry coming out of the timeout, making Curry 2-for-10. Antonio Davis followed with an airball from 18 feet, and Curry threw away a pass in the backcourt that Marbury turned into an open layup for a 44-29 lead.

Mutombo replaced Mohammed at center to start the second half, and the Knicks had a 9-1 run for a 63-38 lead before Mutombo blocked a driving layup attempt by Ronald Dupree—punctuating the rejection with his trademark finger-wag.

“I was just happy to get a chance to play again,” Mutombo said. “It’s been a while, and the opportunity was given to me to go help the team win the game and clinch the playoffs, and I’m very pleased with the way I responded.”

An 8-footer by Penny Hardaway, who scored 21 points, gave the Knicks their largest lead—72-44 with 5:43 remaining in the third quarter.

Mutombo returned after the Bulls cut their deficit to 14 four minutes into the fourth quarter, getting an assist on Marbury’s 3-pointer the first time he touched the ball on offense.

Chicago eventually pulled within nine points, but a 3 by Marbury with 1:52 left sealed the outcome.

“I knew that at some point my team would need me,” Mutombo said. “When it comes to the playoffs, I’m going to have to respond to whatever they ask of me. It’s good to have guys like myself who have been in the playoffs before and understand what it takes to go all the way to the finals. We’ve got a chance toaccomplish that.”

Notes

The Knicks made the playoffs for 14 consecutive seasons before missing them in 2002 and 2003. When they qualified in 2001, they were the fourth seed and lost 3-2 to Toronto in the first round. … Skiles went with two subs in the backcourt to start the second half, replacing Kirk Hinrich and Jamal Crawford with Jannero Pargo and Dupree. … The Bulls had just one assist inthe first quarter. … The teams split the season series.

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Top Performers

 Top Performers
 Chicago
K. Hinrich K. Hinrich
4-10,  16 Pts
4 Rebs, 5 Assists
 New York
S. Marbury S. Marbury
7-14,  20 Pts
5 Rebs, 12 Assists

Team Stat Leaders

Points
Rebounds
Assists