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.
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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.”
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.