Bulls

Jimmy Butler's NBA-best 53 points lifts Bulls in OT thriller over Sixers

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Jimmy Butler's NBA-best 53 points lifts Bulls in OT thriller over Sixers

PHILADELPHIA—Joakim Noah loudly protested to the officials, followed by Kirk Hinrich doing it in a more diplomatic manner, in a demonstrative display of emotion after inexplicably fouling Jahlil Okafor taking a desperation 3-pointer with the shot clock headed toward expiration.

It was a rare show of emotion early as the Bulls fell behind by as many as 24 points before Jimmy Butler authored a career performance, keeping the Bulls in the game as he waited for his teammates to show a pulse.

It took overtime, and it took all of his career-high and NBA-season best 53 points but the Bulls survived their own lethargy and lack of fight to come up with enough to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 115-111, at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night.

The 50-plus point night added his name to Bulls lore, joining Chet Walker, Jamal Crawford and yes, Michael Jordan to the lot of Bulls with that achievement.

“Michael’s the best player to ever play this game. I’m just playing my role on this team. And I wear his shoes (Jordan Brand),” Butler said. “He’s got a couple notches up on me. A lot of them, actually.”

Fred Hoiberg was in amazement on the sidelines as Butler carried the Bulls to win.

“I think so. They had a good defender on Jimmy,” Hoiberg said. “We used him as a ball screener and as a handler. Again, play after play. It was an unbelievable performance.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

By the time he beat Robert Covington for a backdoor layup and foul, which fouled out the 76ers’ biggest offensive threat (25 points), it became clear it was his night.

“I was just shooting the ball. I just kept being aggressive,” said Butler, who added another explosion to his January file, which includes a 42-point performance against Toronto. “Took some bad ones, some terrible ones. But luckily we pulled out the win.”

Another three-point play later was countered by Ish Smith, then finally he had some help in the way of E’Twaun Moore hitting a triple with 1:17 left to give the Bulls a 104-101 lead.

Smith hit one of his own and to overtime we went, where Moore gave the Bulls more.

Seven straight points gave the Bulls a 111-108 lead before Butler chased down a rebound for a layup with 1:20 left to give the Bulls a five-point lead. And he defended Smith’s driving layup with 25 seconds left, providing just enough length for it to bounce off the rim, preventing the 76ers from tying it again.

“Just play basketball. Take the shots the defense gives you,” Butler said. “Everybody sees 53 but that’s not the reason we won. E’Twaun made some big plays down the stretch. He stepped in. That guy gets a lot of credit for tonight.”

It was a defensive stop added to his 10 rebounds and six assists in 49 grueling minutes, which was punctuated by going to the line a career high 25 times, where he made 21 free throws.

Amazingly before the game, no one could be sure how effective Butler would be considering he sprained his ankle late against the Milwaukee Bucks two nights ago and didn’t go through shootaround.

“It was one of those looks, ‘if you take me out I’ll quit’,” Hoiberg said.

But 10 points into the first quarter, it was clear he was mentally and physically into the game, even through his lapses and the mistakes of the rest of the team.

The lead climbed from 12 to 15 to 22 midway through the second quarter, at 50-28, and things looked quite helpless.

It was a comedy of errors, until it suddenly didn’t become so funny—or until it became “laugh instead of cry” funny for the Bulls.

“Turnovers. Hanging heads and no urgency at all on defense,” Hoiberg said. “It couldn’t have been a worse start for us. Everything affected us, the way we handled it. At halftime we cut it to 16, it was manageable. They backed it up.”

[MORE: Rose describes his 'process' after ruling self out vs. Sixers]

Hoiberg unleashed holy hell on his team at halftime, according to the players, as the mild-mannered coach got on his team.

“We don’t gotta continually say we know what we’re doing wrong,” Butler said. “Fred came in here and got on our asses, said “turn this s*** around”, he knew it, we knew it. And we coached the s**t out of us. Made sure we ran these plays. Made sure we executed.”

It wasn’t a stormy comeback for the Bulls, who should’ve never found themselves in this position—even without Rose and Gasol, because despite the 76ers being better since inserting Jerry Colangelo at the top of the leadership board, they’re still a team that has six wins to its name.

And all it would take would be a few minutes of continuity because the 76ers clearly ran out of gas midway through the third quarter as Smith and Covington made miraculous shot after shot to hold the Bulls off for as long as they could.

Moore scored 14 for the Bulls and Doug McDermott 17 in 33 minutes, including a thunderous dunk in the final minutes of regulation that stunned an already stunned crowd.

They were equal parts stunned about Butler’s performance as they were about their team taking a huge lead.

But by the end of it, Butler’s scoring and a few heady plays proved to be just enough on a night where “just enough” should’ve been more than enough to beat a toothless bunch.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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USA TODAY

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”