Bulls

Jimmy Butler pulls Bulls into three-way tie with third straight win

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USA TODAY

Jimmy Butler pulls Bulls into three-way tie with third straight win

Jimmy Butler stood at the line, showered with adoration from a suddenly engaged United Center crowd, encouraged with letters he probably never imagined possible, in a situation he only dreamed to be in.

Two free throws as twenty thousand chanted "M-V-P" for the man who scored 25 of his 33 points in the second half as he didn't get a moment's rest, the man who had to defend Tim Hardaway on the game's final play as a triple went off the back iron with 2.1 seconds left.

Butler literally willed the Bulls to a 106-104 win over the Atlanta Hawks Saturday afternoon, their third straight victory, pulling them to a three-way tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for seventh place in the Eastern Conference—with the Bulls holding the tiebreaker over both.

"He was phenomenal," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We got down 10 and we just kept fighting. Jimmy did everything again. He just found a way to get to the basket, had ten free throws and made them all."

And what's more frightening for the Bulls, this game over the Hawks is the last against a team with a winning record, meaning the season and their playoff chances are in their hands.

Or more specifically, Butler's hands, as long as his legs can hold up playing 42 grueling minutes.

The margins are thin, especially with Dwyane Wade out and the Bulls turning into a different team on the fly. Nikola Mirotic's March to remember made an April fool out of those who expected it to extend, as he hit two of eight from the field—but one was a big triple in the fourth.

Even Butler's last-second heroics was on a play that seemed broken, with Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore doing everything right on the possession: Not giving Butler any airspace, shadowing his right hand and keeping him for going downhill—until he got a little too aggressive on Butler's desperate long two-pointer, fouling him on the arm.

Butler, averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds on 55 percent shooting in his last six games, stepped forward again.

"I wouldn't call it pressure; I always look at it like nobody picked us to be in the playoffs, nobody picked us to win, anyway," Butler said. "I'm just out there playing basketball. I want to win; everybody knows that. I'm just doing what everybody asked me to do, so to speak."

If the free throws are any indication, if the Bulls' comeback from down 89-79 after leading by 10 in the third is another one, the Bulls could be discovering some much needed resolve with six games remaining.

Denzel Valentine hit two triples after the Bulls came out of the subsequent timeout trailing by 10, the last where he passed up kicking it to Butler on the wing on a fast break.

"It shows you what type of kid he is, the confidence he has in himself," Hoiberg said of Valentine, who scored 13 points.

Butler didn't mind the confidence and Hoiberg admired the moxie, as Valentine hit two of the Bulls' 12 triples—a team that's suddenly a 3-point threat after being woefully futile for most of the season.

Continuing a trend after his post-All Star slump, Butler seemingly had enough energy down the stretch to lift the Bulls. Getting to the lane for a layup and then hitting a clear-out triple to tie the game at 102 with two minutes left, it seemed like he was going to have to make every big play late.

"No disrespect to my teammates or anybody, but Fred said, ‘are you tired?' I said no," Butler said. "I want to play, I want to be the reason we win."

With a game against the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday afternoon on the road, the Bulls could be too emotionally spent to capitalize on playing a sub-.500 team. But only this moment was important, consequences be damned.

"I told him "I'm not worried about tomorrow; I'm worried about the right now.' So whatever they need for me to do I'm going out there and doing it," Butler said.

Rajon Rondo again played headliner early while Butler warmed himself into the game, scoring 25 with 11 rebounds on 11 of 18 shooting, with three 3-pointers and seven turnovers in 36 minutes.

The increased trust between the coaching staff and Butler to Rondo is evident, and Rondo has been driving this car as much as Butler through this recent stretch that has many encouraged about an actual playoff appearance.

Losing this game after beating Cleveland would mean nothing, and would symbolize yet another layer of inconsistency in a season full of it.

"We knew this was the biggest game of the season," Rondo said. "These guys have beaten us seven straight times, we wanted to take home court and give the fans something to cheer about."

But there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks would repeat their performance against the Bulls from months ago, when they came back from a 10-point deficit in the last three minutes to send the Bulls into mini-turmoil.

The Hawks—specifically point guard Dennis Schroder—got into the lane at will, scoring 29 points with six assists and seven rebounds. Hardaway Jr. kept the Hawks in it with 20 points, including a stretch of nine straight in the third when the Bulls were threatening to pull away.

But the game went topsy-turvy on both ends, leading to a Bazemore foul on Butler when it looked like a terrible possession late would lead to yet another disappointing home loss.

Dunking Markkanen, dead-legged LaVine, no Dunn and tanking the right way

Dunking Markkanen, dead-legged LaVine, no Dunn and tanking the right way

ATLANTA — Here are the observations from the Bulls’ 113-97 win over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena Saturday afternoon.

Not a shooter, but a scorer: The Atlanta Hawks’ gameplan was clear on Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen: Do anything but let him shoot.

They succeeded at that objective but in the words of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, they “won the battle but lost the war” as Markkanen missed all four of his 3-pointers and didn’t hit a jump shot.

But he scored 19 including six dunks—after coming in with 28 dunks in the first 42 games. The Hawks kept putting smaller players on him after switching pick and rolls and the Bulls smartly and patiently went to Markkanen inside after ball movement.

Shooting over 6-foot-10 guys who aren’t as agile is certainly satisfying for the rookie but as Markkanen said, “dunking is fun.”

“Trying to be a complete player,” Markkanen said. “If that was their game plan, I don’t know. I can do much more than shoot. I missed how many three’s today? But that wasn’t going for me tonight so I went to something else.”

Clearly while Markkanen’s game is growing the easiest thing for opposing teams to do is to see how he’ll perform against smaller players, but as the season has gone on he’s shown more comfort with his back to the basket and being two passes away, ready to step into the lane when defenses collapse.

“I know I can’t just shoot threes, I gotta get to the rim,” Markkanen said. “Eventually it’ll open more space for 3-pointers and stuff like that. Trying to mix it up.”

Dead legs or settling in for Zach LaVine: It was tailor made for Zach LaVine to get his second slam of the season, getting the ball on a breakaway with only Taurean Prince trailing him.

Whether LaVine heard footsteps or knew he didn’t have the full lift to get there, Prince caught up with him to foul from behind as LaVine tripped before liftoff, missing a layup.

It was indicative of his early showing, as the adrenaline from the first two games has worn off and LaVine is having to get used to his body’s limitations in the moment—especially as his minute restriction was raised to 24 minutes for the next three games before he’ll be re-evaluated again.

He was 0-for-4 in the first half before catching a bit of a rhythm in the second half, finishing two-for-nine with eight points in 18 minutes, adding nine rebounds. His explosion isn’t there yet, going to the rim. And his legs on his jumper feels a little flat, too.

“I don’t have all of it (legs),” LaVine said. “A couple possessions down the floor, I get tired. Get fouled and have to walk it off. I have to get the game legs back and I can’t practice it, it comes with playing.”

In two months, one would think he’ll finish that with little issues but he admitted fatigue caught up with him more than anything.

“My first two (games) I was extremely excited, energized,” LaVine said. “I just feel like it’s something I gotta get used to playing NBA games again. I feel it a little bit.”

Especially in watching Cleveland’s Isaiah Thomas go through a similar up-and-down period with his return, nobody should’ve expected LaVine’s performances to just keep rising and rising without dropoff.

This is part of the rehab, and the Bulls feel as if they’re prepared for it. Their reasoning for only marginally increasing LaVine’s workload from 20 to 24 minutes is simple: They want him to have off-days to continue strengthening his surgically-repaired knee, not just having him take the practice days as recovery from playing heavy minutes.

“You can’t anticipate any of it,” LaVine said. “I felt good the first two, I feel good now. No injury, no knick-knacks or anything. Just energy-wise and your legs, making sure you’re getting up and down the floor, making sure you’re getting elevation on your jumper and in the lane, I gotta get better at it.”

As self-aware as anyone considering what he’s been through over the past year, he offered an assurance to any who may be concerned.

“I gotta play through it, find ways around it,” LaVine said. “Regardless I’m not scared or anything. I feel fine.”

Dunn out vs. New Orleans: Kris Dunn will be out against the New Orleans Pelicans and it appears more likely he’ll miss Wednesday’s game in Philadelphia as well as he recovers from the concussion he suffered in a scary fall against Golden State earlier this week.

“He has no change in his symptoms,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll know more tomorrow but his symptoms haven’t changed.”

Initially the Bulls didn’t believe Dunn had a concussion but the symptoms emerged early the next morning.

“From what I understand with concussion symptoms, they can take up to 24 hours to develop. It sounds like the initial tests, he passed,” Hoiberg said. “Then he woke up the morning, had a headache, had some dizziness, was re-checked and that’s when they put him in concussion protocol. There’s been very little change since. He’s still having trouble with sleeping. The biggest thing is making sure he’s getting rest and he stays hydrated.”

The tank: One team successfully executed how to tank, and that was the Atlanta Hawks. Yes, the Bulls forced them into missing 37 of 48 3-point attempts, and the Bulls jumped on them early and never allowed the Hawks to take a lead, much less get too close.

“We opened with a double-digit lead right out the gate,” Hoiberg said. “Overall, really complete performance for our guys.”

“We knew we had to come out the gate with great effort.”

Robin Lopez continued his impressive play with 20 points and Justin Holiday hit a few shots late to score 13, while Bobby Portis scored 14 in 18 minutes.

But pretty, it was not.

The Bulls haven’t completely abandoned their plans for the season, as they’ll field calls for Holiday, Lopez and of course, have Nikola Mirotic’s exit being first on their docket.

But while this team is relatively whole, this is a game they should win handily.

And they did.

Yet and still, though, this applies to the 13-32 Hawks:

Does Rodney Hood make sense for the Bulls?

Does Rodney Hood make sense for the Bulls?

New York Times veteran NBA writer Marc Stein tweeted late Friday that multiple teams were interested in fourth-year swingman Rodney Hood.

We know that the Jazz are one of the rumored teams interested in embattled forward Niko Mirotic and while it wouldn’t seem to make sense on the surface, Rodney Hood could be a good fit for the Bulls.

Hood will be a restricted free agent this summer and the Bulls would retain the rights to match any offer if they felt like the former Duke Blue Devil was the right piece to join the new core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn.

There is one complication in a potential Mirotic for Hood deal; the salaries don’t quite match. Utah would need to send another player like Alec Burks to Chicago in the deal. The Bulls would have to be OK taking on Burks’ $11.5 million salary for the 2018-19 season and his cap hit in free agency. Good news though, the free agent class this summer is very thin at small forward, the main position the Bulls have a need for.

Another road block, the Bulls are set to max out LaVine this July, and they may be wary on tying up a good part of their cap space for the next four years on two players.

Acquiring Hood hurts the ‘tank’ but you’d have a three-month audition of a 25-year old shooter that on paper would seem to work with the current rotation. If the Bulls felt like Hood wasn’t a good fit, let him walk in free agency. They would then keep their cap space intact for the 2019 super free agent class.