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Bulls dodge Bobcats bite this time
by Sam Smith
Posted on Jan 29
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It’s not exactly a crisis. Actually, it’s a pretty good thing for the Bulls as they ponder their 93-85 victory Monday over the Charlotte Bobcats, their seventh win in the last nine, to go to 27-17. But with the emergence of second year man Jimmy Butler, who led the Bulls in scoring off the bench with a career high 19 points, for the first time as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is faced with true rotation and starting lineup questions regarding the use of Butler.
Starting five games for injured All-Star Luol Deng, Butler averaged 14.2 points and 8.6 rebounds. Though, more importantly, Butler for the Bulls is the rare, exceptional athlete who could complement his skilled, hard working teammates. The Bulls were 3-2 with Butler starting, and then Deng, the league leader in minutes played, returned Monday getting 12 points and four rebounds in 31 minutes. Deng said he felt good with no problems, and Thibodeau said he wanted to be cautious with playing time for Deng given the hamstring injury.
But Butler played 31 minutes off the bench for a strong reserve performance that included 15 points from Nate Robinson, 11 of the 16 in a 16-3 run into the fourth quarter that broke the game open for the Bulls and enabled them to hold off the Bobcats and avenge a home loss to Charlotte last month.
“Nate’s energy was good. He knocked down a couple of shots. A couple probably could have been a little better, but that’s Nate,” Thibodeau observed with a smirk, likely thinking of a fourth quarter Robinson transition three when he was one against three and it went in. “I thought overall he did very, very well. He made a lot of good plays. He is playing a lot harder defensively. He has room for improvement but is definitely moving in the right direction. I thought (Deng) moved very well. He is trying to get his timing back. That was huge. His reduced minutes were because of his first time back and I wanted to see where he was. I did not want to over extend his minutes. The matchups weren’t great for him. (Joakim Noah with a Wilt like of 13 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks) was terrific. He is just everything. His rebounding, he protected the rim, his defense, making plays and his passing. It was a terrific all around game by him. Carlos (Boozer with a power left handed slam dunk) had a big time bucket for us late. A lot of guys stepped up. Kirk (Hinrich) was very solid. Everyone did a good job overall.”
For the most part that’s true, though the Bulls don’t do these things easily very often as the 11-33 Bobcats were tied at 55 in the third and cut a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to six with about two minutes left.
That’s when Butler made yet another crucial play. The Bobcats were back within 84-78, scoring four straight after Butler gave the Bulls an 84-74 lead with 3:02 left after cleaning up Deng and Noah misses. Butler has the exceptional basketball qualities one cannot measure until a player has the opportunity, which Butler mostly hasn’t since being the last pick in the first round out of Marquette in 20111.
He finds the ball, sort of that old line about the ball finding energy. Butler has gotten himself noticed coming off he bench this season generally finishing one follow dunk every game. Not only is it getting the ball, but dunking, which isn’t seen that often among this Bulls team that could fit well in many eras. They move, cut, screen, box out, pass. Heck, it’s almost as if they’d never heard of the AAU or allowed anyone to buy them dunking DVD’s or video games. But Butler also doesn’t shy from the contact. He seems to embrace the hits and the scrum, qualities found among his teammates but few who combine them with athletic elan.
“It’s all the same to me,” said Butler of returning to his reserve role. “Just come in off the bench with energy, rebounding, guarding, making open shots, getting to the free throw line. That’s what my teammates need me to do. So when I’m out there, starter or off the bench, whatever it may be, I’m still the same player bringing the same things to the table.”
And it wasn’t lost on anyone that when the game suddenly was getting tense and tenuous, it was Butler playing alongside Deng at the wing or two and three or small forward and shooting guard spots along with Noah, Boozer and Hinrich.
“It was because of matchups,” said Thibodeau. “They were real small. We had to match up with their quickness. We were looking at (Kemba) Walker, (Ramon) Sessions and (Ben) Gordon. That is a lot of pressure on your defense. I wanted quick feet out there and I thought that was the best matchup tonight.”
But after that Butler finish with 3:02 left when he waited out their big men, Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Adrien, and scored between them, the Bobcats got back within 84-78 with 2:32 left. Butler missed a baseline jumper. Noah got it back, eventually going to Hinrich, who missed a three from the left wing. Butler was spaced in the left corner. As the Hinrich shot went up, Butler began to go to the board. Imagine that. He came along the baseline as Biyombo grabbed the miss. As Biyombo brought it down, however, Carlos Boozer stripped the ball. And there was Butler in the lane to pick up the ball and go back up, twisting as he went, bumped hard by Adrien with no call and then going through the contact to put the ball in over his shoulder.
Big play in the game. A game saver, most likely.
“This team is always together in every aspect,” said Butler, who speaks pretty much only about team. “When I score 19, it’s not just me. My teammates get me the ball. It’s crazy because this team is so close. That’s where a lot of our success comes from.”
It’s not incorrect, but it also comes with big plays at big times, and that’s what Butler did down the stretch again like against the Lakers and Pistons last week, that layup denying the Bobcats a chance to cut it to four with just under two minutes left. The Bulls didn’t have to sweat and finished it up with Boozer on the next Bulls possession, Boozer and Robinson running a two man game on the right side with Boozer rolling and Robinson with nice bounce pass. Boozer then hammered the ball in left handed over a staggering Biyombo.
For all those fans who have been asked about why Boozer doesn’t dunk, he does. Boozer does seem lighter and quicker this season, and he has been finishing these games more often because he will, “Throw it down, big fella,” as Bill Walton would say.
Though in all this the intriguing question hovers like a big motzoh ball hovering out there. This stuff can make Thibodeau a bit on the touchy side. Not exactly like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.
But Thibodeau doesn’t like to change his starting lineups, which he hasn’t done in three years other than because of injuries. He will go through rotations quickly, as he has the last week in playing Robinson and Hinrich together and Monday Butler extensively with Deng. Though Butler isn’t a three point threat yet and is two for 10 in the last six games from three, him teaming with Deng gave the Bulls perhaps their best defensive wing combination in years and perhaps answered the long question of who can play shooting guard.
The last one was the Bobcats Ben Gordon, who along with Walker had 18 points for Charlotte, and Gordon still really can shoot, making four of five threes despite effective defense by Butler. Though Gordon never talks about it publicly, you have to rank him in the questionable career decisions like Maclean Stevenson leaving MASH after a few seasons. There’s always been much debate over the circumstances, though there was some tension as Gordon and Deng sought contracts at the same time. The Bulls offered Deng more, though both reportedly around $50 million. Both turned down the offers and later Deng accepted and Gordon initially rejected and then supposedly changed his mind as the Bulls pulled their offer. There have been various versions over the years. But Gordon, who could have been an offensive dream team with Derrick Rose like in that 2009 playoff series with Boston, had a disastrous tenure in Detroit. The Pistons gave the Bobcats a No. 1 pick just to take Gordon’s contract, though Gordon has recovered well, again one of the league’s better sixth men shooting 41 percent on threes and 13 points off the bench.
“I thought we did a good job late getting back in it,” said Gordon. “I thought that through out the game they just played consistent defense. That was the big difference. When they didn’t score, or we went on a run, they just did a good job the whole game on the defensive end. (Noah) is an All-Star. He does it all out there for them. He does the dirty work that very few others will do. He does whatever it takes to help his team win.”
Also playing, rarely, for the Bobcats is fellow former Bull Tyrus Thomas, whose career has spiraled into virtual anonymity. Thomas was scoreless in a bit over six minutes. He’s been replaced as a starter by former Bull 12th man Hakim Warrick, who was injured and replaced in the starting lineup Monday by Adrien, an undrafted free agent from Connecticut who’s mostly played in the minor leagues and overseas. Thomas argued on the bench when removed after a brief second half stint and looks ill as he’s so thin.
“We started him (Adrien) because we thought he gave us the best match-up and chance to win,” said Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap of that matchup thing. “We knew he would be physical and aggressive on the glass (though that explains it pretty well). Noah had a huge game on the glass and that is what really hurt us. They’re more experienced than us in so many aspects of the game. However, we were still able to level the score in the third quarter (tying the game at 55 after trailing 49-40 at halftime). They were in the game at the end and it was a couple of turnovers that really hurt us. Chicago is an upper tier defensive team. They force you to grind it out. It’s a tribute to their nastiness and hard play the whole game.”
Those nice, kindly Bulls?
Who really didn’t particularly dominate a team with 18 straight losses coming in last month that won in the United Center, though the Bulls did hold them under 40 percent shooting Monday.
Although many fans chirped to bench Boozer for Taj Gibson the last few years and Boozer would frequently not finish games or play in the fourth quarter, it never became that big an issue because of Gibson’s lack of scoring. It’s continued this season as Gibson’s high water mark was averaging nine points as a rookie. This season he’s averaging seven points, almost a full point below his career average, though Gibson’s defensive game has remained solid.
But now comes Butler, who looks like a marathoner the way huge minutes games seem to have no effect on him. He effectively defended Kobe Bryant and Rudy Gay last week and was frustrating Gordon early as the Bulls took a 21-15 first quarter lead and then by nine at halftime. He’s a wiry and sinewy, fundamental defender with quick feet able to stay in front of clever players and not fall for shot fakes with a mature play that belies his age and experience.
Deng, typically as a supportive captain, was thrilled with Butler’s play, and Butler related to reporters a pep talk he got from Deng after Deng had to go out to rest his hamstring.
“Lu said, ‘You can do this. This is your time, step up and keep playing the way you have been playing,’” said Butler. “When you hear that from an All-Star, that’s big.”
Are the Bulls better off with Butler a big minutes starter alongside Deng?
I’m quite sure Thibodeau would say no, and there probably is no rush. Though Hamilton never got it going Monday and had two points. He’s had a respectable season starting and averaging about 12 points in 24 minutes. Thibodeau has said since Hamilton has returned from injury he’s holding Hamilton’s time down so he’ll be stronger come playoff time. But will or should Hamilton get the cameo starting role like Keith Bogans had and more famously Marc Iavaroni who started and played pretty much just the first quarter for the 1983 champion 76ers?
The complication is the emerging play of Marco Belinelli, who with the extended play of Butler played just 15 minutes Monday and had four points.
It would be a mistake to lose sight of Belinelli, who has a pair of game winning shots this season and is one of the team’s better three point shooters. Actually, only Hamilton and Hinrich are slightly better. A three point shooter like Belinelli spreads the floor, which is vital for the Bulls cutting and passing game, in which Noah once again has thrived. He is on a remarkable run with at least 13 rebounds in nine of the last 10 games, averaging almost five assists the last eight games along with about 12 points and a 3.4 blocks the last five games. A team needs the floor spaced and spread with shooters to open those passing and cutting lanes.
But at the same time, Butler’s efforts on both sides of the ball give the Bulls additional size, defense and needed athleticism to match up with the athletic teams that give them difficulties. And he doesn’t shrink from the moment as he and Robinson led the Bulls Monday with eight fourth quarter points each. Thibodeau called Deng perhaps the game’s best defender, and you put Butler at his side along with Noah, who is considered the front runner this season for Defensive Player of the Year, and you have arguably the league’s most potent defensive unit when Gibson comes in with some athletic, fast break scoring ability to complement that.
Sure, no coach, perhaps other than Jim Harbaugh, likes the questioning and second guessing of a lineup change. But then coaches like to say to players you do what’s best for the team and don’t worry what anyone says. In any case, the development of Butler and whenever he is playing adds to the Bulls depth and bench. It’s all positive, though it will add some intrigue to examine how it all plays out for the Bulls.