Bulls

Jimmy Butler accepting challenge of overtaking LeBron James

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Jimmy Butler accepting challenge of overtaking LeBron James

In no mood to discuss an upcoming award that was rightly well-deserved, Jimmy Butler turned the white-hot mirror of basketball criticism onto himself after having a front row seat to LeBron James elevating his game in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between Butler’s Bulls and James’ Cavaliers.

The soon-to-be-named Most Improved Player was schooled by the four-time Most Valuable Player Wednesday, one game after Butler began carving out a bigger and greater name for himself to start the series.

Restricted free-agent to be against Max Player of all max players. 

Unfair, right?

The game illustrates and inalienable truth Butler couldn’t avoid if he wanted to, that neutralizing James with his own play is likely the difference between going onto the conference finals and going home.

James scored 33 with eight rebounds and five assists, working himself into a lather early and believing his teammates would follow. Working Butler into a tizzy was an ancillary benefit.

“He was aggressive but I wasn’t aggressive on defense,” Butler said. “It was easy for him. He got to the rim too easy. Lots of layups. Reckless fouling. He did what he said he was gonna do.”

[MORE: LeBron, Cavs flip the script on Bulls in Game 2 victory]

Butler knew James was going to come out strong, and devastating. He wanted his teammates to be up to task. Clearly, whether they admitted it or not, the Bulls were satisfied with stealing one game on the road and swapping home court advantage—but it can be all taken away with one bad 48-minute stretch—and we all know the Bulls are more than capable of that.

“(We) came out sluggish. We weren’t guarding,” Butler said. “We were trying to outscore them. We’ve been saying we can’t do that all year, that it’s easily correctable. It starts with me and like I always say I have to be the one who sets the tone on defense.”

If Butler is to be believed, and nobody would ever misconstrue Butler for being fake, then this team has to, in large measure, follow Butler. As much as Derrick Rose is the heart of this team, and the face, Butler owns the Bulls’ attitude.

It’s not so much bravado as it is reality, as Butler looks at James as a peer and not some deity worthy of praise.

“He’s just another player,” Butler often says.

When Butler sees James rise off the bench and saunter to the scorer’s table after brief rests, Butler nonchalantly accepts his fate, steals a few more seconds of time off his feet before heading in that direction.

In his head, you can almost see Butler say to himself: “I will follow him wherever he goes, even if it’s to the bathroom”.

Butler is the man standing in the way of a transcendent player doing something unprecedented in today’s NBA. Since the playoffs expended to 16 teams in 1984, no player has led his team to five straight NBA Finals—a feat James is in line to accomplish, if he can get past Butler, run him over, go around him or whatever phrase best fits this matchup.

Larry Bird was stopped by Isiah Thomas and the Pistons in 1988 from achieving such a feat. Retirement apparently stopped Michael Jordan in the mid-90s, and the most Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant ever did was reach the Finals three times in a row.

The reason is it’s too damn hard to go back to the emotional well time after time—and there must be an opponent worthy of driving a superstar to his physical and mental limit before he says “No Mas”.

That’s Butler’s test, to wear James down, but he must do it while also keeping his own reservoir above empty. Butler watched James take a couple plays off and actually look exhausted late after a strong start—not to mention James pulling himself out of the game with 7:58 left in the first quarter after willing his team to an early 13-2 advantage.

“Yeah, that’s what he does,” Butler said. “He’s the leader of his team and he controls a lot of it. Whether he’s pulling himself out or calling plays, he knows what he’s doing.”

[RELATED: LeBron continues his domination of Bulls in Game 2s]

It wasn’t a shot at James, just more acceptance of the stakes, and the magnitude of his responsibility. Butler went to the bench with James, although he wasn’t feeling so tired at the time.

His backcourt mate, perhaps unwilling in intent to put more pressure on him but aligned together in assessing things as they are, put it bluntly.

“This is the matchup that’s could definitely build his confidence as far as being a superstar player,” Rose said. “He’s playing against a player that’s extremely talented, that puts so much pressure on a defense just by having the ball.”

“Jimmy, he’s gotta take that challenge. I think that last game, he showed up. He did a great job of having bodies in front of (James). I think it’s gonna take a little minute to get there.”

After James’ domination in Game 2, Butler was asked if Rose’s assessment was fair—while Rose was 10 feet away.

“That’s fair. I have to outplay guys. End of story,” he said.

Even a guy like LeBron?

“Yeah. I have to produce," he answered. "That’s my job on this team, to guard and score baskets. It’s not too much to be asked because I think I’m very capable of it.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoffs, Bulls fans!]

And if you want a reason why the Bulls don’t fear the specter of LeBron James, take in Butler’s words. And if you want a reason how the Bulls can beat the Cavaliers and keep their season going, consider Butler’s attitude—it might be their only hope.

“We’ll fix everything on Friday.”

As for the award, that’s a happy day for another day.

“Not too much right now,” said Butler when asked to reflect on it. “I’m focused on helping this ballclub win some games. I want to win this series, I want to win a championship. At the end of the season, maybe this Most Improved Player Award will mean a lot more.”

Because in the meantime, he needs sleep. James is headed back to the scorer’s table, and Butler’s sure to follow.

“I will follow him wherever he goes.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.