Bulls

Butler carries Bulls to win: 'Give me the ball, and get the (bleep) out of the way!'

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Butler carries Bulls to win: 'Give me the ball, and get the (bleep) out of the way!'

MILWAUKEE — Whether it was to someone in particular, no one in particular or said in pseudo-frustration, Jimmy Butler yelled out his feelings in a building he once called home:

“Give me the ball, and get the (bleep) out of the way!”

Walking off the floor, having created most of the critical scores late in a game that still leaves the Bulls, at best, in critical condition in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Butler’s importance in the Bulls’ 102-98 win over the pesky Milwaukee Bucks cannot be overstated.

On a night where he missed just one shot in a 25-point, eight-assist and five-rebound performance, one can be entitled to a bit of hubris, moments after an emotional win that kept the Bulls two games behind the Indiana Pacers with five games to play.

One of those shots was a mid-range jumper where the Bucks’ defense — like the Pacers’ defense last Tuesday — didn’t switch on the screen-roll with Butler as a ballhandler with 51.9 seconds left, stretching the lead to 97-93.

“Not really, tell you the truth I was looking to pass,” he said. “I was. He showed, they didn’t switch like we thought they would, I rose up and knocked it down.”

It comes with the territory, Butler says, as a player with a max contract on a team that entered the season with aspirations on being more than a fringe playoff team.

“I think I kind of have to do it now,” Butler said. “Everybody looks to me to do so, with the deal I just signed and being one of the better players on this team. Fred (Hoiberg) is putting the ball in my hands as of late, he knows I’ll make the right decision, whether to shoot or pass the ball.”

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Like Saturday night’s game against the Detroit Pistons, the ball was in Butler’s hands late as the Bulls were again without Derrick Rose (elbow), and there was also no Taj Gibson (ribs) to provide rebounding, interior defense and emotional leadership.

Unlike Saturday, shots fell late and Butler showed enough trust in his teammates to make shots when the Bucks were charging back from an 18-point deficit.

The fine line between the Bulls going away from Hoiberg’s ball-movement system and having subsequent questions about a stagnant offense compared to the coach letting his best players make decisions in late-game situations can be separated by Nikola Mirotic (19 points, six rebounds) cutting for a layup off a pass from Pau Gasol to restore a four-point lead and Justin Holiday hitting a corner jumper off a pass from Butler late in the shot clock, giving the Bulls a 95-91 lead with 1:17 left.

“He wants the ball in his hands, and he’s done a great job for us closing out games,” Hoiberg said. “With a low-possession game like that, Jimmy’s the guy with the ball in his hands making the right play.”

Sometimes, narratives can change in the blink of an eye, even if the two extremes are just that — extremes.

“I was hoping he did (shoot),” Butler said. “I thought about throwing it to him because I threw him a layup earlier and he missed it. It angered me. But that’s my guy, and I have a lot of trust in him. He can shoot the ball.”

After struggling in that department for most of the day, the Bulls had contributions from Mirotic and Doug McDermott, guys who were as visible as Casper the Friendly Ghost on Saturday night, as the Bulls led 50-32 with 3:24 left in the first half.

At one point, when McDermott (seven points) scored on a fast break using some dexterity on the way to a three-point play, Gasol ran off the bench and halfway down the baseline to congratulate him.

“I was really encouraged with the way we started the game,” Hoiberg said. “That’s how we’re supposed to play, getting out on the break. We had great pace, had the ball moving.”

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Jimmy Butler jersey right here]

Then disaster nearly occurred as the one team the Bulls will face in a 14-day span with nothing to play for wanted to bring the Bulls to that level, starting a rousing comeback in the third quarter.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (34 points) and Chicago native Jabari Parker (24 points, 11 rebounds) led the way, as the two were initially the only Bucks to score in the first quarter with 24 points and decided to take matters back in that direction after halftime.

Antetokounmpo is a matchup problem on a good day, but since Jason Kidd has inserted him as point guard, he’s turned into a nightmare. He easily cut into the teeth of the Bulls’ defense with long-striding layups and passes to bigs inside on the way to nine assists.

Midway through the third quarter the lead was all the way down to 61-56 and momentum had clearly shifted. Butler scored nine in the quarter, and Aaron Brooks had a couple circus layups to keep the lead at 10 headed to the fourth quarter.

“The third quarter, we’ve got to find a way to come out and bury a team when you’ve got them down,” Hoiberg said.

They didn’t, and things got more dicey in the fourth, until Butler was sicced on Antetokounmpo three minutes into the fourth and the Bucks had pulled to within one.

“We had to get Jimmy onto him,” Hoiberg said. “He had some good energy down the stretch to guard Giannis. He did a great job going straight up.”

Antetokounmpo hit one shot — a meaningless triple when the game was already decided, a game Butler put his personal stamp on, even though they’re still in the NBA’s version of intensive care.

“A win is a win, home or away, by how many points,” Butler said. “They don’t go by points when you’re looking at the eighth seed. It’s all about winning and losing. If we continue to win, hopefully we’ll find ourselves there.”

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.