Jimmy Butler's return a successful one in Bulls' win over Rockets


Jimmy Butler's return a successful one in Bulls' win over Rockets

An alley-oop dunk signaled a triumphant return for Jimmy Butler, and a one-night reprieve from the month-long misery for the Chicago Bulls.

It was a night of firsts or “first time in awhile” in their 108-100 win over the equally-floundering Houston Rockets at the United Center, as the Bulls ended their four-game losing streak.

Butler was in uniform for the first time in nearly a month and was greeted with one of the toughest covers in the game, Rockets guard James Harden, as his welcome back matchup.

Harden scored 36 but struggled with Butler on him, as each dealt with foul trouble all night with Butler fouling out with a little under three minutes left.

Butler scored 24 points with 11 rebounds and six assists, as the Bulls pulled ahead of the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Obviously you see the impact Jimmy has with his ability to make things difficult for the elite wing players in this league,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He gives you great physical presence out there and stays in front of guys.”

Butler caught a one-handed alley-oop from Pau Gasol early in the first quarter, showing no ill effects from the left knee strain that cost him 11 games in the last month.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought I would be,” said Butler of his conditioning, although he looked winded a couple times out there.

“My competitive spirit kicked in and I got to doing what I do best---fouling," he added laughing.

It was a nod to him fouling out for the first time this season, which almost signaled doom for the Bulls as they allowed the Rockets to make things interesting despite leading by as many as 17 points.

“It got a little stagnant in the fourth but we were able to protect the lead,” Hoiberg said.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

It was a Nikola Mirotic sighting for the first time since January 25 as he’s recovering from hematoma surgery and an appendectomy, and he hit two triples early in the fourth quarter to push a close game to breathing distance.

Butler, Derrick Rose and Mike Dunleavy saw the floor together for the first time this season, and there were plenty of moments where the group worked together for backdoor cuts and transition triples, as Dunleavy kept moving and Rose and Butler kept looking for him, scoring 12 in 30 minutes.

“It was great tonight, his energy was awesome,” said Dunleavy of Butler’s return. “He provided a huge boost for us, especially on the defensive end and dealing with Harden. We look forward to keeping him healthy and keeping him out there.”

Derrick Rose had a spill early, taking a charge on Butler and falling on his side and looked a bit ginger in the second half, returning only after Butler fouled out and the Bulls leading by 12.

Rose committed six turnovers, but scored 17 with nine assists and had a spirited matchup with fellow Chicagoan and workout buddy Patrick Beverley, earning double technical fouls in the second quarter.

In another first, the Bulls had an early lead for the first time in awhile, jumping out front, buoyed by the energy from the Saturday night crowd, seemingly desperate for a positive showing and not ready for this team to fall under the .500 mark.

But it wasn’t all rosy, as they committed 26 turnovers, succumbing to the Rockets’ frenetic trapping pace, often forcing passes and plays that wound up in the expensive seats rather than the intended targets.

“We talked about making quick decisions and slipping through the double teams to let Pau play with more numbers on the other side,” Hoiberg said. “Too many carless passes and their hand pressure really bothered us.”

[RELATED: Derrick Rose shrugs off technical foul, hard fall in Bulls win]

Luckily for them, the Rockets couldn’t hit much from the 3-point line until it was desperation time, or very well could’ve walked away winners in what would’ve been an unbelievably disappointing finish for the Bulls.

Gasol committed eight of those turnovers, bested only by Harden giving it away nine times of his own, but Gasol filled the stat sheet against former teammate Dwight Howard to make up for things.

Gasol scored 28 with 17 rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes, outplaying Howard, who fouled out with 12 rebounds to go along with just eight points as he didn’t look comfortable with the one-man show offense Harden was running.

The Bulls didn’t look comfortable for stretches either, getting reacclimated to Butler’s presence and unable to truly get ahold of the Rockets forcing them to play out of control.

But with the current state of affairs, the Bulls need it any way they can get it, and they hope to figure out the rest on the back end.

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.”