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Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs

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Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs

The Bulls were home underdogs on Saturday night, one loss away from being eliminated from playoff contention. Standing in their way was a surging LeBron James and a Cleveland Cavaliers team that could have wrapped up home court advantage in the East with a victory. And yet, given their plethora of baffling losses in what's soon to be a lost season, the Bulls' 105-102 victory to stave off elimination didn't come as much of a surprise.

Instead, it marked yet another example of consistent inconsistency that has plagued the team during a season in which they've proved capable of competing against — and beating — the league's best teams. And it's the reason why one more loss — or Pacers win — will mean the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Saturday's primetime matchup marked the 16th and final game this season against the teams with the NBA’s current six best records: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and the Clippers. And including the Saturday's win, the Bulls went 11-5 in those contests, including 7-1 against the top two teams in their conference, Cleveland and Toronto.

"Yeah if you would have told me at the beginning of the year we’d be 7-1 against the top two seeds and be on the outside looking in I would have thought you were crazy," Hoiberg said after the game. "But it’s where we are."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

To put that 11-5 record in perspective, the Bulls are the only of the 24 other teams to record a winning record against the NBA’s top six teams. And it isn’t close.

The only other team even hovering around .500 in those games is Houston, which went 8-11. The closest team to the Bulls in the East is Detroit, which went 5-9 against the Big Six. In fact, the teams currently seeded third through sixth in the East (Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Charlotte) went a combined 15-45, including Charlotte’s paltry 3-12 mark.

But that impressive record, which included a four-game sweep of Toronto, three wins over Cleveland, two against Oklahoma City, and home wins over San Antonio and Los Angeles, has been rendered irrelevant by the Bulls’ shortcomings against the league’s worst teams. Against those groups currently with the NBA's worst eight records, the Bulls have gone 12-7. A winning record can be misleading, as that number is the fewest wins by a team ranked in the top 10 in the East.

So, with two games remaining the Bulls’ season, their win percentage against the league’s six best teams (.687) is higher than it is against the league’s eight worst teams (.631).

You read that correctly.

[RELATED: Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers]

Even if the Bulls win their final two games, at New Orleans and against Philadelphia, their win percentage against the bottom eight will be .667, still below.

And that's what Fred Hoiberg pointed to during his pregame comments Saturday as to what went wrong early in his first year at the helm.

By the end of November the Bulls were 10-5, third in the East and just two games behind the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East. Their December schedule included 11 of 15 home games, and seven games against teams at or below .500. But losses to Phoenix, New York and Brooklyn set them back. And, looking back, that quadruple-overtime loss to the Pistons wound up being a major blow to the Bulls’ playoff chances.

“And that’s costing us now,” Hoiberg said of the 8-7 December record. “Those early games may not seem like much at the time but you look where we are now, and there’s such a thin margin for error because we didn’t take care of business with some teams that we absolutely should beat.”

When the wheels fell off in mid-January — a five-week span in which the Bulls lost 14 of 19 games — they still remained in the playoff hunt, tied with the Hornets for seventh in the East on Feb. 19. They teetered around .500, remaining in the thick of the race, but the baffling performances continued.

[MORE: Fred Hoiberg plays 'Dumb and Dumber' clip for Bulls, laments early-season losses]

A 13-point loss in Orlando. A 21-point loss in Washington two days after beating the Raptors on the road. They recovered from that loss in the nation's capital with three straight home wins. But that streak was followed with what was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end, two straight losses to the Knicks. The Bulls have gone 4-7 since then and, as Hoiberg admitted, will "hope for a miracle" in the final week of the season.

It’s why Hoiberg disagreed that there was any sort of silver lining in the Bulls’ ability to compete against the league’s best this season. As they proved often this season, Saturday night included, flashes of greatness and team cohesiveness mean little when they’re countered with just as many no-shows. Hoiberg said the Bulls will need to improve their consistency in all areas next season. Until then, they'll have to reflect on what could have been playing meaningful games in April.

“It is frustrating because we’ve given away so many golden opportunities over the course of this year to put ourselves into a position where we’d be locked into a playoff position. Where we’d be making a decision on whether we rest a player going into the playoffs.

“But it is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about that now. But certainly a good learning lesson for us next year.”

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.