Butler’s 53 carries Bulls to comeback win over 76ers


Jan 15

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Jimmy Butler!

The lead in journalism sums up the story or principal idea, and that one pretty much says it all about the Bulls 24-point comeback and 115-111 overtime victory Thursday over the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.

“It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg reiterated as he pretty much said the same thing 10 days ago when Butler’s 40-point second half bailed out the Bulls in a victory in Toronto. “Jimmy throws up a career game like that and the guys hopped on his shoulders and he carried us home. Point after point; unbelievable performance.”

Historic, really.

Butler became just the third Bulls player ever after Michael Jordan and Chet Walker, the latter in 1972, to score at least 53 points in a game. It was the most points scored by a Bulls player since Jordan in a 1997 playoff game and the most regular season points since Jordan’s famous “double nickel” game in New York in his 1995 comeback. It also tied Stephen Curry for the NBA season high game and was Butler’s new career high surpassing the 43 he scored against Toronto. Butler had missed morning practice Thursday resting a sore ankle. He also had 10 rebounds and six assists, made 21 of 25 free throws and played the entire second half and overtime.

He later drove the bus to the airport, flew the plane, served everyone dinner, unloaded the luggage and took the lead in the Iowa caucuses. Which was about the equivalent of what he did in the game.

Butler scored 15 of his 26 second half points in the fourth quarter. And still that probably would not have been enough as the exhausted Butler gave way late to E’Twaun Moore, who scored the Bulls final three points in regulation and first seven points in overtime after Butler and Joakim Noah turnovers to give the Bulls enough margin for the important victory.

“Moore punished us badly with seven consecutive (overtime) points,” said 76ers coach Brett Brown. “To me that was the game. I feel like Butler was doing his thing. We could persevere with him when we made the adjustment, and Moore came out and punished that.”

Moore had a season high 14 points and Doug McDermott had 17, including a crucial three pointer to bring the Bulls within 95-92 with 5:42 left in regulation and a bawdy dunk with 3:36 left in regulation to get the Bulls within 97-96.

“I didn’t know Doug could dunk; it was great,” quipped a relieved Hoiberg.

Taj Gibson had 11 points and 11 rebounds as about the only Bulls player aiding Butler in the first half. Joakim Noah, starting for Pau Gasol back home taking treatment, had six points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and seven turnovers. Kirk Hinrich starting for the injured Derrick Rose had five points as Hoiberg played pretty much the fourth quarter and overtime with Butler, McDermott, Moore, Noah and Hinrich.

Reserves Tony Snell, Aaron Brooks and Bobby Portis combined for 27 minutes and two points while all were at least -16. Everyone else who played but Nikola Mirotic was plus while on the floor. Mirotic was two of 13 with five turnovers and -3. The Bulls committed 23 turnovers for 28 points with Noah and Mirotic combining for more than half.

Sure, it was a “must win” game, but not so much because the Bulls had lost three straight and were in the midst of their only four games in five nights sequence of the season and their heaviest road schedule. There are no greater must wins in the NBA than against the 76ers, who remain on pace to be the worst team in the history of the NBA. Yes, you must win the games against them if you are to be taken seriously at all.

“Turnovers, hanging heads, no urgency at all on the defensive end of the floor,” Hoiberg said about the start and falling behind the 76ers by 24 points in the second quarter, their biggest lead in a year. “Couldn’t be a worse start for us; everything affected us. I talked to our team and said I hope you understand how good a team we can be when we play the right way, take care of the ball, rebound. We’ll see how we respond. One of those hopefully we can build off.”

This wasn’t one to build off because no one is seeing many games like this.

Of course we saw one like it from Butler less than two weeks ago, but, c’mon.

Which really is the extraordinary thing about Butler. There’s hardly been anyone like him in NBA history because he’s not that good. At least in what we usually measure.

“We won; that’s all I’m worried about,” said Butler after his extraordinary performance. “I’ve got some hellafied teammates, though.”

It’s actually in the urban dictionary, so I’ll let it go.

“Kept getting me the ball, telling me to score, be aggressive and then just support me on defense whenever I make some bad plays,” said Butler. “They’re always there to help. Same thing on offense. This is a damn straight team win. Just playing basketball. Take the shots that the defense gives you. Everybody sees my 53 points, but that’s not the reason we won. The reason we won (is) E’Twaun making big buckets late. That guy gets a lot of the credit. Just kept being aggressive, taking shots the defense was giving me and luckily we pulled out the win.

“I get humbled by my teammates,” Butler added. “As soon as I walk out of here, (they’re saying) ‘I’m lucky, you’re not good.’ I like that. I just want to continue to be who I am. They want me to be successful.”

Butler sure has become successful.

But it’s more than his rags to riches life story and his basketball emergence from low first round draft pick, rarely used as a rookie, backup to Luol Deng and neo-star.

There may never have been a player in NBA history who has become a star player basically on the force of his will, to simply defy everyone and become one.

Butler’s not a very good shooter, a career below average three-point shooter and only about 44 percent overall. He’s athletic, sure, but not explosive. Jordan wasn’t a great shooter, but had that explosive first step. Same with Kobe Bryant; Russell Westbrook now. Butler isn’t a great passer or ball handler. He’s no Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas or Pete Maravich.

Basically every top star in NBA history had some superior skill, like shooting or passing, dribbling or high flying sky dunking.

It’s difficult to watch Butler and identify something that you say others cannot do. Or have seen many players do.

Yet what Butler does is unique, the way he gets to the free throw line, hits the floor and takes a physical beating, continues to get up each time like Rocky being knocked down and the look on Creed’s face. And then Butler hits them with an overhand right. He shoots 33 percent on threes, among the lowest in the league at his position, but he makes ones when they are needed. He’ll lose the ball against a double or pass it away, but then beat it with the game on the line. He’ll ask for the ball when everyone is running away from it.

Which might be that special skill and what he did with brilliance, poise, determination and certainty in Philadelphia. And when the Bulls needed it most.

They moved to 23-15 and after the passionless losses to Atlanta and Washington and overwhelmed by Milwaukee, a loss to the dreadful 76ers would likely produce a community death knell.

And this certainly looked like one with the 76ers latest band of misfit journeymen led by Robert Covington with 25 points and Ish Smith with 24 points absolutely dominating the Bulls.

The Bulls fell behind 34-22 in the first quarter as the 76ers, 29th in the league in shooting, shot 64 percent. Butler had 12 points; everyone else combined for 10 with four Bulls scoreless and two with two points each. And seven turnovers. The 76ers scored nine straight to open the second quarter against an again overwhelmed Bulls bench and went ahead 50-26. Yes, the 76ers. Again it was Butler, head down with 10 free throws and 13 of the team’s 24 second quarter points to stay within 62-46 at halftime. Without Butler, the 76ers might have had 90.

“I don’t know what’s happened with it (turnovers),” said Hoiberg. “Earlier in the year we did a pretty solid job of taking care of the ball, but a couple of times we just handed them the ball, threw it to them. It’s hard to explain. We need to play much better and much more consistent.”

Though there’s been regular debate depending on the day and result, it showed how much the Bulls need Rose and Gasol. Obviously, Rose would have been an alternate scoring option as the oddly coached 76ers rarely doubled Butler with no one else close to making a shot or even wanting to take one. And the 76ers played perhaps six feet off Noah. The result was the lane closed and the passing lanes walled off, leading to more turnovers on passes. The 76ers were able to sit back in almost a full zone with Noah declining to shoot. Noah did some great things with his hustle, but Gasol’s court opening shooting was badly missed.

The 76ers were still shooting 55 percent at halftime

Players said Hoiberg was hot at halftime about the first half malaise.

“Fred came in here and got on our (butts). He knew it, we knew it,” said Butler. “Make sure we run plays and execute. I like it He was fired up. He came in and let us know this is not how we’re going to play. I like it.”

Butler, of course, famously said last month Hoiberg didn’t coach hard enough.

This was more of players not playing hard enough. Well, most of them.

It was much better after halftime as it quickly became a game, even with six more crazy turnovers, four by Mirotic that pretty much ended his night. Noah added two consecutive late ones late in the third throwing some daring passes when the Bulls actually might have taken a lead. They trailed, amazingly, just 79-77 after three quarters.

“You look at what E’Twaun Moore did coming off the bench, just made play after play down the stretch for us,” said Hoiberg. “I thought Jo was terrific. Taj did a really nice job rebounding. Doug gave us great minutes off the bench, as well.”

It looked like the Bulls’ game with just one good quarter. But the 76ers opened the fourth quarter with eight straight points and a 90-81 lead with 9:19 left.

It was like Butler looked up and couldn’t believe his eyes. OK, here we go again.

Drive and two hand slam, drive and pull up, drive and baseline fading jumper, spin move for a Noah pass and layup, pull up for a three-point play for a 101-99 lead with 1:51 left. It was part of a total of three minutes in the game thus far the Bulls led. But Smith drove down and scored to tie it and then Moore coolly, as he is wont to do, dropped in a three with 1:17 left for a 104-101 lead. Smith with his 10th team in five seasons came right back with a three to tie. The 76ers finally woke up and doubled Butler, who fumbled the ball away to go to overtime.

It was obvious Butler was spent, the last few minutes of regulation stopping to bend over repeatedly.

“Me tired, no, that doesn’t happen,” Butler laughed. “I was tired, but my teammates did what they had to do. When I wasn’t tired they got me the ball and let me attack, when I was I just set some screens.”

Still, he tried to win it in overtime. But there was nothing left. It looked like a wasted scoring record when the 76ers went ahead 108-104 in the first two possessions with Butler’s offensive and Noah throwing the ball away.

But Moore, who’d had DNPs in three of the last five games and played fewer than 10 minutes in the other two with missing three of his four shots, stepped into the void. He made a three, Hinrich stole the ball from Smith and Moore made a runner. Then Moore made a steal and hit a jumper after a wiggling move that wasn’t quite a crossover but close. It was 111-108 Bulls with 2:37 left. The Bulls defense stiffened and when Nerlens Noel missed a dunk, Butler ran out with the rebound to score and it pretty much was over, Butler with the goals and the saves.

Butler simply said it’s on to the next one as he says he has a friendly bet with his trainer to play all 82 games.

“It was one of those looks, ‘If you take me out I’m going to quit,’” Hoiberg recalled about any thought to give Butler a rest. “So I kept him in.”

Butler’s just become a force of will and nature.

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