Bulls

Jimmy Butler teaches a lesson in Bulls' win over Suns

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Jimmy Butler teaches a lesson in Bulls' win over Suns

Jimmy Butler had high praise for Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker but that praise came with a bit of a lesson, as Booker learned it the painful way: Talking trash to a guy who’s looking for a reason to get fired up is a bad idea.

“He was talking trash to me,” Butler said. “That’s what was crazy. He was talking to me. I was like, ‘Excuse me.’”

The incredulousness in Butler’s voice manifested itself in the fourth quarter, as Butler abused the league’s youngest player in the fourth quarter after the Suns had everything on their side: A raucous crowd that was filled with a lot of red in the stands, momentum after trailing by 17 and coming in on a three-game winning streak, all by double digits.

But they didn’t have Jimmy Butler, who made the Suns pay in the last 12 minutes for 14 points on his way to a season-high 32, as the Bulls put away a pesky Suns team at Talking Stick Resort Arena, 103-97, for an encouraging start to a three-game western swing.

Booker blocked a Butler layup in the fourth and barked at him a bit the next time downcourt, even hitting a pair of triples to help build precious second-half momentum.

Then Butler put the Booker on the block the next two times, luring Booker into biting on pump fakes for fouls, the latter a three-point play as Booker’s hack was no match for Butler’s strength.

He proceeded to let the crowd know he was feeling it, much to the approval of a big chunk of the fans in attendance, and looking forward to the challenge of going head-up with the reigning MVP of the NBA champs on Friday, Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

“Yep. I look forward to guarding everybody in this league, especially a prime time scorer like him,” Butler said. “So I’ll ask coach for that matchup. No disrespect to him but I like that.”

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Butler finally admitted he loves the opportunities of having his teammates look for him when they need a big basket, the hallmark of a player determined to prove he’s worth every bit of a maximum contract he signed over the summer.

“It just shows how far I’ve come and how I worked on my game to be able to score the ball late and for my teammates to know my ability to score,” Butler said. “That’s the utmost respect coming from them to me and me returning the favor because I’m showing I can put the ball in the basket.”

With Nikola Mirotic struggling and Derrick Rose out, Butler knew much more of the burden would fall on his shoulders, as he wouldn’t allow Hoiberg to take him out for a quick spell to start the fourth.

“I tried to take him out, he wouldn't let me,” Hoiberg said. “It was almost like his energy level went on in that fourth quarter and that's what big time performers do. They step up when you need it most.”

Booker just happened to provide a little extra kerosene on a smoldering fire that was bound to explode in the final stanza.

“Kid has got potential. He can really shoot,” Butler said. “But sometimes I think you should just play the game and let that be it.”

Booker was feeling the momentum, as the Suns stalked the Bulls for the better part of three quarters after a disastrous opening 12 minutes and even took an 88-87 lead with 4:47 left.

“I knew we would be in for a heck of a battle,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They picked up the pressure. They were the tougher team for a stretch but we got it back at the end.”

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On one possession in the second half, the Bulls allowed six offensive rebounds close to the basket until PJ Tucker scored on the lucky seventh try, as their aggressiveness forced 20 turnovers to make up for shooting just 41 percent from the field.

Without Rose (ankle) and having Aaron Brooks tweak his left hamstring twice, Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight looked to have field days on the perimeter, getting to the paint and combining for nearly half of the Suns’ scoring (44 points).

But Kirk Hinrich helped aid Butler in his cause of saving the Bulls on the character-building road opener, hitting a triple after a Pau Gasol driving dunk, part of his 14-point, six-assist performance.

“I put him back in there and hit that huge 3 off that ball screen. He played solid minutes,” Hoiberg said. “He's the one, early in that game he did such a good job getting us into an offense and getting our defense organized.”

Gasol got the Bulls off to a 72-percent shooting start by making his first five shots on his way to a 17-point night, and before Brooks got hurt, he made his presence felt after getting shut out of playing time against the Pacers with 12 points and five assists in 19 minutes.

But in 42 grueling minutes, the night belonged to Butler, setting the tone and perhaps firmly establishing himself at the top of this food chain.

A lesson Booker learned the hard way.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”