By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - To many National Basketball Association (NBA) observers, the Eastern Conference race looms as a battle between the league's two-time defending champion Miami Heat (16-6) and emerging Indiana Pacers (19-3).
Not so fast, say the head coaches of two of the NBA's most underperforming, injury-sapped teams - the Chicago Bulls (8-12)and New York Knicks (6-15), who met on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
"It's a long season. Teams that have injuries now, they get healthy as they go along. Anything can happen at the end," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who played without four starters in a Tuesday loss to Cleveland and was only able to add Joakim Noah to his lineup against the Knicks.
Said Knicks coach Mike Woodson, whose center and defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler is sidelined with a broken leg and was also without point guard Raymond Felton (hamstring), "If we're healthy, I think we're a good team. I think we can compete at that level."
The Bulls, playing without Luol Deng (sore Achilles) and Jimmy Butler (toe) as well as former MVP Derrick Rose, gone again with another knee injury, fell behind by 23 points in the third quarter before turning up the defensive pressure and tying the game 74-74 before New York pulled out an 83-78 victory.
The win was sorely needed by the Knicks, whose last Garden performance was a 41-point drubbing by the rebuilding Boston Celtics and whose record over the first 20 games was the worst in franchise history.
"We so desperately needed a win tonight," said Woodson, who lamented playing without "a full deck" and whose job security has come into question during the Knicks' downward spiral.
"HOLD YOUR FIRE!" blared the Daily News back page.
Rising to the rescue for the Knicks was Amar'e Stoudemire, playing in a second consecutive game for the first time this season after play-time restrictions to protect chronic knee injuries. He scored 14 points with nine rebounds and hit the go-ahead shot with 2:30 to go.
Knicks high scorer Carmelo Anthony, who led with 30 points and 10 rebounds, underlined the importance of the game from a psychological perspective.
"Guys really realized this was a game we couldn't let slip out of our hands from a mental standpoint," said Anthony. "If this game would have gotten away from us there ain't no telling what would have happened."
Despite having the worst record in the Atlantic Division, the Knicks are fortunate to be trailing leaders Boston (10-14) by only 2-1/2 games.
The struggling Bulls, losers of nine of their last 11, are 10 games behind the division leading Pacers in the Central, but they are clinging on to the last playoff spot for now.
Thibodeau has had to deal with adversity in Chicago before and felt confident the Bulls would eventually make a charge.
Injuries are part of this league," said Thibodeau, who has taken the team to the playoffs in each of his three seasons with the club, reaching the conference finals in his first season and the semi-finals last year.
"Each year has been totally different. The first year, Carlos (Boozer) was out for a significant amount of time and then Jo (Joakim Noah) was out for three months. We were able to overcome that," the coach said.
"The second year, Derrick missed half that season. We were able to overcome that. Last year, Derrick missed the entire season. We had a lot of guys step up and do a great job.
"So this year we've been hit with a lot of injuries. It's early in the season and we have to take this challenge and we need everyone putting everything they have into it, and I believe we'll be successful."
Thibodeau said it was too early to judge.
"It's the teams that are playing the best, that are the healthiest going into the playoffs. That's what you're aiming for, to continue to improve and anything can happen."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)