In nearly 800 NBA regular-games, Carmelo Anthony had never played in one like this.
It didn't matter.
Eliminated from postseason contention for the first time in his 11-year career, Anthony said it was tough even coming to the arena on Sunday night.
"But mentally, you just had to put yourself in that mindset. Although you're not playing for nothing, if you suit up, you've still got to go out there and play ball," Anthony said.
He and the Knicks did it well, getting 20 points from Tim Hardaway Jr. and beating the Chicago Bulls 100-89.
No longer with any hopes of their own, the Knicks snapped the Bulls' seven-game winning streak and dropped them back into a tie with Toronto for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with two to play.
"We let a big game slip tonight. It was probably the biggest game of the season," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "Disappointing the way our mentality wasn't good today, but overall we just won't have time, just got to let this one go, get ready tomorrow."
Anthony and J.R. Smith each had 17 points for the Knicks, who were eliminated Saturday when Atlanta beat Miami, ending New York's run of three straight postseason berths.
Anthony's first season without a postseason comes as he prepares to become a free agent in July. He had a hard time looking ahead beyond the next two games — which he isn't even sure he will play in because of nagging shoulder pain that he might get checked.
"It's just hard for me to even think past tonight, right now, at this moment," Anthony said. "Everything is just, for me, just cloudy. I've never been in this situation before. I don't even know what to say about this situation."
A 54-win division champion last season, they believed they were built to play deep into the spring, so confident in what they had that Amare Stoudemire said the expectations should have been even higher.
"On paper, we might be the best team in the league," he said before the game. "We've got great players on this team who've accomplished so much. We just couldn't put it together."
Noah had 13 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler scored 17 points, but Chicago was just 6 of 22 (27 percent) from 3-point range.
"Defensively, we weren't very good," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I liked the fight to come back. I thought we made some good plays down the stretch and we missed some wide-open 3s that you live with."
The Knicks led 45-39 at halftime, then Smith hit consecutive 3-pointers and Raymond Felton made one for a 9-0 spurt that opened a 60-46 advantage, and the lead reached 67-50 when Anthony nailed a 3.
Chicago was down 17 again with 7½ minutes to play before finally making a push, cutting it to 93-87 when Taj Gibson's three-point play capped a 15-4 run. But they repeatedly misfired from the perimeter, preventing them from getting any closer.
The Knicks have played well in March and April, beating Toronto on Friday, but it's too late after they had already fallen to 21-40.
"Being the coach, I just apologize to the fans, because again, they pay their hard-earned money to come out and see us play and we didn't come into this season expecting this," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said.
Whatever expectations the Bulls had were gone after Derrick Rose was lost to season-ending knee surgery in late November and Luol Deng was traded on Jan. 7. But Chicago has not only regrouped but flourished, bringing an Eastern Conference-best 35-14 mark in 2014 into Sunday's play.
But they will need help now — perhaps from the Knicks, who host Toronto in Wednesday's finale — to get the No. 3 spot, since the Raptors would get the tiebreaker as a division champion. Chicago closes against Orlando on Monday and at Charlotte on Wednesday.
Notes: The game was originally scheduled for a 1 p.m. start and be shown nationally on ABC, but was booted shortly after the Bulls' 109-90 rout of the Knicks in Chicago on March 2. The Indiana-Oklahoma City game was shifted to that marquee spot. ... Chicago was trying for its first eight-game winning streak since Feb. 20-March 7, 2012.
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