Bulls

Jimmy Butler finally gets buckets in Team USA win

Jimmy Butler finally gets buckets in Team USA win

Bulls fans know Jimmy Butler is legit after watching his transformation from a role-playing defensive specialist to a 20 PPG scorer and two-time All-Star. But casual fans tuning in to watch the Olympic competition got a chance to witness all the qualities Butler brings to the table in Team USA’s 113-69 rout of Venezuela on Monday.

Like most of the NBA stars on the roster, Butler has the ability to drive by an initial defender almost any time he wants. But during Team USA’s exhibition schedule, and in the Olympic opener against China, Butler had been content to simply drive into the lane and kick the ball back out to an open 3 point shooter. He’s been the poster child for the type of unselfish play advocated by Mike Krzyzewski and his staff.

In Monday’s win over Venezuela, Butler finally took advantage of some of his scoring chances, knocking down a 3-pointer when the game was still close in the first half, and converting a pair of old-fashioned 3-point plays to help Team USA break the game wide open after intermission. Butler finished with 17 points, second only to Paul George’s 20 for the U.S. side, and his defensive play continues to be outstanding.

[SHOP: Buy a Jimmy Butler Team USA shirt]

With former Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau directing the defensive efforts, Team USA has been an active, swarming force, able to keep the opposition from getting good shots with pressure on ballhandlers, and excellent rim protection from big men DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins. Butler has teamed with aggressive wing players like Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green to cut off passing lanes and come up with steals to ignite a lethal fastbreak attack.

It’s been kind of funny hearing the familiar sound of Thibodeau’s voice barking out defensive instructions, even with Team USA in total control. After a year away from the court, Thibs is still a perfectionist, and his defense-first philosophy is more important than ever in these Olympics. Without some of the elite NBA scorers like Steph Curry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook on the roster, this version of the “Dream Team” model is keyed by its work on the defensive end, and Butler fits right in with that approach.

Krzyzewski commented early in training camp that he didn’t know Butler was such a complete player and raved about the work Butler put in to become a star. As the games have gone on, Butler has become a critical part of Team USA’s second unit, with his defensive ability and unselfishness complementing the skills of DeRozan, George and Kyle Lowry.

The Americans will get their toughest test on Wednesday against a rugged Australia squad, led by NBA big men Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes, along with feisty point guard Matthew Dellavedova and 3-point specialist Patty Mills. The Aussies have already blown out France and Serbia, and they won’t be overpowered inside by Team USA. Former Bulls champion Luc Longley is an assistant coach for Australia, and said his players will get a true measure of just how good they are defensively against a team loaded with NBA All-Stars.

As for the Aussies chances of upsetting the heavily favored Americans, Longley said simply, “It’s always possible, mate. There are no impossibilities in basketball.”

Back to Butler, he’s not all that concerned about how many points he scores during the Olympic tournament, he just wants to come home with a gold medal draped around his neck. Butler’s role with the Bulls will most certainly change in the upcoming season with the addition of 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade and four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo. The 6-7 swingman will be moving back to his original NBA position at small forward and he’ll be asked to knock down more catch and shoot jumpers than he has in the past.

Butler is only a 33 percent 3-point shooter over his first five seasons in the NBA, but after watching him improve every year he’s been in the league, don’t bet against him becoming a consistent threat from beyond the arc. Right now, it sounds like most of the national experts are dismissing the chances of the Bulls being more than a seventh or eighth seed in the East. But as you watch Jimmy Butler fit in with some of the game’s biggest stars during these Olympics, it’s exciting to think what he’ll be able to do teaming up with Wade, Rondo and some emerging young players next season.

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.