Bulls

Jimmy Butler carries Bulls on both ends: 'The great ones want all that on their plate'

Jimmy Butler carries Bulls on both ends: 'The great ones want all that on their plate'

Through 57 games Jimmy Butler has battled through various injuries, silenced the outside whispers of trade talks, and met questions about his leadership inside the Bulls’ locker room head on. Through all that noise the 27-year-old has emerged as one of the game’s best players, an honor which will be validated Sunday night when he starts in the All-Star Game alongside the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

But before shipping off to New Orleans for the weekend Butler had business to finish in Chicago. Specifically, the three-time All-Star was tasked with shutting down fourth-quarter sensation Isaiah Thomas on one end, while acting as the go-to scorer down the stretch on the offensive end.

And though it didn’t end in a dazzling buzzer beater or one of his vintage lockdown defensive stands, Butler did it once again for the Bulls, adding another highlight to an already remarkable season in the Bulls’ 104-103 victory over the red-hot Celtics.

Marcus Smart nicked Butler on his shooting elbow with 0.9 seconds remaining and the Bulls trailing by one. Butler, who had made 43 of 44 clutch free throws this season, calmly sank a pair of freebies to give the Bulls a lead. And it was he who defended Al Horford’s shot at the buzzer that missed long and sealed the Bulls’ victory in the NBA’s final game before the All-Star break.

“I was still hoping it went in,” Butler said after the game. “We ran it the way we were supposed to. We got the look that we wanted. I told Jerian (Grant) what move I was gonna do, and (Smart) got a piece of the elbow. At the end of the day (referee Zach Zarba) made the right call.”

Butler’s late drawn foul and subsequent free throws were the end result of a masterful fourth quarter. And the competition he did it against couldn’t have been a more difficult matchup. Boston entered Thursday’s game having won 11 of 12, and leading scorer Isaiah Thomas had averaged 32.6 points and nearly 4 triples per game in February. More than that, Thomas entered averaging 10.7 points per fourth quarter, the highest mark since the NBA began tracking the stat in 1996.

That made the Bulls’ situation all the more perilous when Brad Stevens subbed Thomas in with 8:47 remaining and the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead. Fred Hoiberg countered with bringing back Butler, who drew the arduous assignment of guarding Thomas down the stretch.

"That was kind of our plan going in, that Michael (Carter-Williams) was going to spend the majority of the time on (Thomas). And then Jimmy in the fourth quarter was going to be the guy that we were going to switch on to him. (Thomas is) just such a tough cover,” Fred Hoiberg said of Thomas, who is second in the NBA in scoring, “the way he finishes over size, he pulls up from anywhere on the court, has unlimited range and does a great job getting to the free throw line.”

Thomas was every bit as good as advertised in the final stanza, Of the final 19 points the Celtics scored in the final frame, Thomas had a hand in 16 of them, with 11 points and two assists to Kelly Olynyk on a pair of jumpers. But Butler made Thomas work for his points, chasing around the 5-foot-9 point guard and forcing him into passes or quick shots. With the Celtics up one with 1:10 remaining Butler blocked a Thomas layup attempt. The next trip down Butler also closed out on Thomas’ left wing 3-pointer which was off the mark and set up the Bulls’ game winning possession.

“He’s a lot to deal with,” Butler said bluntly after the game.

But defense was only half the story. Playing without Dwyane Wade for the third straight game, the Bulls offense minus Butler was crawling to the finish line. After beginning the fourth quarter 4-for-9 from the field, hanging on to a lead built up with a 29-point third quarter, the Bulls finished the game 1-for-8, with Butler’s bank shot to tie the game at 94 apiece the lone make at the 4:58 mark.

It was just enough offense to get it done, just as Smart got just enough of Butler’s elbow to draw a whistle. Butler initiated offense, found open shooters (despite the misses) and finished with nine points of his own in the final period, essentially matching Thomas as best he could.

And with the game on the line Butler made his free throws look anything but pressure-filled.

“In a time like that I do it all the time in the gym by myself before the game,” he said. “Nothing. No pressure.”

As far as basketball clichés go, “two-way players” can often get overused. But it’s exactly what Butler was on Thursday, carrying an offense while shadowing the league’s second-leading scorer the final 9 minutes of the game. Butler, who finished with 29 points on 9-for-20 shooting and seven assists, has transformed himself into one of the game’s best players, but Thursday he looked like a true superstar, taking over the game and stepping up when it mattered most.

“It’s what he wants. And really it’s what the great players want,” Hoiberg said. “Looking back in the history, the great ones want all that on their plate. Jimmy’s no exception. He’s a guy that’s going to go out and take the challenge, anything that’s given to him. And it pays off more often than not.”

Thursday night was also important for a Bulls team caught in between contending in the East and tearing it all down in place of a rebuild. The outcome – it was also the Bulls’ 17th consecutive TNT Thursday home win – won’t make the decisions Gar Forman and John Paxson make this week toward the trade deadline any easier.

The Bulls have won two straight – against the Raptors and Celtics, no less – and have an impressive 9-8 record against the six teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. Though the Bulls enter the All-Star break with a losing record for the first time since 2010 and have far more questions than answers on their roster, they’re also on track to make the postseason in the subpar bottom half of the East.

No matter who’s dealt or brought in before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, with Butler leading the way the Bulls will always feel as though they have a chance to win games. It showed Thursday against a Celtics team that’s inching closer to the Cavs atop that Eastern Conference. And barring a blockbuster deal that sends Butler to the team he tormented for 40 minutes on Thursday, the Bulls will have that player as they continue their push toward .500 and a postseason berth.

“It just shows that we’re capable of winning games. Moving forward we can’t worry about who we’re beating. We’ve got to go against everybody the same,” Butler said. “Home away, neutral site, whatever it may be: win. That’s all that matters."

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

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USA TODAY

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: Trounced by Raptors in season opener

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Trounced by Raptors in season opener

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Will Perdue break down the Bulls season opener vs the Raptors. They’ll explain why Bulls fans should be very happy with the debut of rookie Lauri Markkanen and Kendall points out why he expects the Markkanen/Lavine combo to be great on the offensive end. They’ll also go over their concerns at point guard, and Will shares his story of how Greg Popovich dealt with a losing Spurs team in 1996-97.