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Bulls: Butler challenges himself to be better defensively in Milwaukee

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Bulls: Butler challenges himself to be better defensively in Milwaukee

There’s only so many minutes to play in a playoff game, so much energy to expound before the human body says “no”, but Jimmy Butler is taking it upon himself to put more pressure on himself to perform at a higher level.

Yes, the man who has missed a total of 56 seconds of available playing time in the fourth quarter and overtime in the last four games is asking more from himself as the Bulls prepare to travel to Milwaukee to put away the pesky Bucks in Game 6 Thursday.

And if he has to cut back on his offensive production, or at least attention to that end of the floor, so be it. Butler, at least verbally, is taking the mantle of responsibility for the Bulls' lack of energy".

“Be the person to get us going, on both ends, especially the defensive end,” Butler said. “I'm supposed to be the one setting the tone. And I haven't done that and that's the reason we've gotten off to slow starts.”

[MORE: Bulls offense unable to solve versatile Bucks defense]

Khris Middleton has given the Bulls fits, and point guard Michael Carter-Williams had his first good game in Game 5. Butler could wind up defending any one of three Bucks' scorers tomorrow.

“I really do have to get back to it. I'm not saying it because the cameras are on me right now. I'm saying it because that's what it'll take to win. Somebody has to lead us defensively.”

Butler made clear he doesn’t think the Bulls have a leadership problem, and after all, they’re up 3-2 in this series despite the semi-panic that has taken over in assessing this team. But his words about accepting the pressure and leading the Bulls at least gives way to the belief that something is missing.

“I have to be a better leader. I think I'm shying back on some aspects of the game,” Butler said. “I don't think there's a leadership void. I think everybody needs to be more of a leader. Not just one guy but everybody.”

Butler only trails LeBron James, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry in terms of playoff scoring at 26.6 points a game, so if he’s reallocating his energy, someone will have to pick up the slack.

[MORE: President Barack Obama staying loyal to Bulls in NBA Playoffs]

“I guess give some to take some,” Butler said. “I think we score the ball well enough. If I give all my energy on defense and get some stops, the other four guys will score.”

Pau Gasol has stated ad nauseam about the Bulls’ slow starts and lack of aggression to start games, as the Bucks’ energy and athleticism always seems to catch the Bulls by surprise, so Butler claims he’s going to do something about it.

He didn’t agree with the assertion that the Bulls’ defense has gotten soft, but nobody can deny the Bucks have played tougher and more aggressive in the last two games at the very least.

“Non-aggressive, inconsistent, there's a lot of words besides soft,” Butler said.

After talks with his brother and trainer, Butler came to the conclusion that he has to single-handedly match what the Bucks are doing instinctively defensively, with the hopes his teammates will follow.

“You can sit here and say we have to do this, we gotta block out, we have to rebound, we gotta guard,” Butler said. “But if I'm saying it and not doing it, ain't nobody paying attention to it. So If I'm preaching it and showing I'm capable of doing it, everybody will follow suit.”

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Buy a Jimmy Butler jersey here]

Perhaps his disastrous Game 5 on offense brought on the self-reflection, where he shot 5-for-21 in 46 minutes, giving life to the old-but-new concerns about his playing time (averaging 44.2 minutes this series). And the Bucks have said, albeit quietly, that Butler looks worn down in the fourth quarter.

“They don’t know how I feel. They’re not in my skin or my shoes,” Butler said. “I’m in great enough shape where I can handle the heavy minutes. I never complain. And I’ve got to produce, heavy minutes or not. I got to make shots, make plays happen.’’

He played all of the fourth quarter and two overtimes in Game 3, and sat for 56 seconds in the fourth quarter of Game 4. He says it’s affected him, although not the way people have claimed.

“I do, but not because of the minutes. I’m in a different role,” Butler said. “I think teams have to scout me and be ready for what I bring to the table, and I think that wears down more than anything, that they know where I’m going to get the ball and things like that. But that’s part of the game. I’m not tired. Like I said, I’ve got to produce. That’s all I’m worried about on the floor.’’

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

MILWAUKEE — When Thad Young played for the Pacers, this was, according to Young, that team’s scouting report on Lauri Markkanen:

“He’s a guy who can score in different levels of the game. He can shoot the midrange. He can take you off the dribble and do his hanging fade to get his shot off. Or he can step behind the line and tee up some 3s,” Young said. “So we tried to keep him seeing bodies so he wouldn’t take the ball from one side to the other.”

Markkanen’s struggles — and the Bulls’ usage of him — is becoming an almost daily storyline. It certainly dominated Monday’s postgame questioning after the Bulls dropped to 1-18 versus winning teams with a 111-98 loss to the Bucks.

For the second time in three games, Markkanen failed to score in the second half. Seven of his 11 attempts came from 3-point range — all of which he missed. His eight points came from two putbacks and four free throws.

That’s it.

“He missed some shots he normally makes. That happens,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I thought he was moving well. He had a couple great cuts to the basket, opportunities at the rim. That’s what we want from him — inside, outside.”

But that’s not happening enough. Fifty-three percent of Markkanen’s attempts this season have been 3-pointers. That’s up 11.5 percent from last season and 4.1 percent from his rookie season.

Too often, Markkanen is being relegated to playing as a stationary, 3-point shooter and not the dynamic, multifaceted scorer for whom Young’s Pacers teams prepared.

“Yeah, I think I can do a lot of good things besides just shoot threes,’’ Markkanen said. “Haven’t really been able to do that lately. Just have to figure out the way I can attack the rim more and get to the free-throw line. I need to figure out my spots.”

This is not meant to fully absolve Markkanen, who has indeed missed open looks consistently this season. For the second straight game, Markkanen joked about how Boylen called a play for him on the first possession, only for Markkanen to turn it over.

Markkanen also again acknowledged the sore left ankle he is playing through as he tries to reach his well documented goal of playing all 82 games. Markkanen called the ankle “not normal but getting there” and also shook off banging knees with Donte DiVincenzo that left him running hobbled for a few possessions.

Markkanen said he has no problem talking to Boylen about his usage and, as is his nature, looked inward.

“We’ve talked about it. He ran some plays for me. I turned it over. He does run some stuff for me. I just have to make the plays,” he said. “If you shoot the ball like [I have], you don’t really deserve touches. Can’t really complain.

“When you’re feeling it and actually making shots, it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going. A lot of our plays I screen and pop.’’

The Bulls tied their franchise record with 48 3-point attempts. Boylen said that was the gameplan since opponents averaged 40 3-point attempts and 17.5 makes in the Bucks’ mere six losses.

Never mind that even if the Bulls hadn’t gone ice cold in the second half to finish with 14 makes that adding 3.5 more makes would’ve still left them on the losing end. The Markkanen problem is bigger than a math problem.

“I think the system complements him to the point where he has a lot of freedom to do different things,” Young said. “If he’s open, he takes a 3. If he’s not, he tries to make a play. He’s doing the best he can, just like me and any other guy on this roster. He has to continue to believe in what we’re doing.”

Markkanen now has nine single-digit scoring games after posting just four last season. He has nine 20-point games after registering 22 last season.

This is a huge season for Markkanen not only because his success is tied into the success of the Bulls’ rebuild but also because he’ll be eligible for an extension of his rookie contract following this season.

“I know he’s going to work. And he cares. He has high character,” Boylen said. “I believe in him. And our team believes in him.”

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Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

The Bulls dropped their season series with the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 with a 111-98 road loss on Monday. Observations from a familiar-feeling defeat:

Kris Dunn is unafraid

Bulls’ opponents have recently begun to aggressively sag off Kris Dunn when set, routinely leaving him with oceans of space to operate with behind the 3-point arc.

But that hasn’t deterred Dunn from continuing to chuck. In January, his 3-point attempts per game is up to three (he had been hoisting 2.1 per contest in the first two months of the season). Today, he took three in the first quarter alone and finished the night 3-for-5 from deep, bringing his January 3-point percentage up to 34.3%, though that figure is skewed by tonight's performance.

Still, when smart, lengthy teams like Milwaukee employ this strategy to clog driving lanes, it throws a real wrench in a Bulls halfcourt offense already prone to stagnation. Zach LaVine suffered the most from it today. He didn’t score until hitting a 27-footer at the 2:02 mark of the first, missing all three of his prior attempts in heavy traffic in the paint. Dunn checked out on the next possession, and LaVine ended the period with 10 points. But the team’s spacing was off all game.

Turnovers and jump-shots kept the Bulls in it, but not forever

That LaVine spurt spurred the Bulls to a sharp-shooting first half, at least from deep. After starting 3-for-9 from long range, the visitors entered the break at 9-for-22 (40.9%), and also parlayed 15 Bucks turnovers into 19 points.

But their inefficiency inside the arc (9-for-24 in the paint in the first half) served as an omen. In a stretch that recalled these teams’ last meeting in Chicago, the Bucks sprinted out to a 17-4 run in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third, shooting 7-for-10 to the Bulls 2-for-9 (0-for-5 from three). Déjà vu all over again.

The Bulls did claw their way back and trailed only 84-77 entering the fourth, and it was 3-ball that resuscitated them. They shot 4-for-9 from deep in the latter part of the period, and also converted seven of seven attempts from the free throw line. But the Bulls never got closer than nine after the Bucks’ first bucket of the fourth quarter. They finished the game 14-for-48 (29.2%) from three, 20-for-44 (45.4%) from two and 37% from the field. The Bucks outrebounded them 49-39 and outscored them 60-38 in the paint.

"In [the Bucks'] six losses, teams have shot an average of 40 threes and made 17.5. We were on pace to do that in the first half," Jim Boylen said after the game. "Second half we didn't shoot it as well, we ended up making 14. So, that was pretty much our gameplan... I think our gameplan to play against them was solid, we just needed to make a few more of those open shots we had."

The defense was good enough to loosely hang around, forcing 23 turnovers by game’s end. But the Bucks’ paint-packing, hard closeout strategy worked to perfection — the Bulls missed some open looks, but the Bucks also forced a bunch of tough ones.

Fourty-eight 3-point attempts ties the Bulls’ franchise high for a game with the famed 4OT bout with the Hawks last season. Three of the Bulls’ six highest 3-point attempt games have come against the Bucks this season.

A step back for Lauri Markkanen

To be fair, no Bull outside of Thad Young (4-for-8 from three), LaVine (24 points, 8-for-9 from free throw line) and Dunn finished with stat lines that approached being positive. Still, Markkanen’s 8 points on 2-for-11 (0-for-7 from three) shooting was a regression from a solid 17 point outing against the Cavaliers on Saturday.

"He's okay, he's just working his way through it, he's just fighting," Boylen said when asked to assess Markkanen's confidence level. "He missed some shots that we know he can make. That happens."

All eight of Markkanen’s points came in the first half. He logged 15 minutes in the final two quarters, missing all five of his shots. Four of them were 3-point attempts. Markkanen has now gone scoreless in the second half of two of the Bulls' last three games.

"When you're feeling it and actually making shots it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going," Markkanen said. "A lot of our plays I screen-and-pop, so maybe get to the rim. But most of the time, I'm pretty good."

"I think I can do a lot of things, not just shoot threes, but obviously haven't been able to do that lately," he added. "So just gotta figure out the ways that I can actually attack the rim more and get to the free throw line. So, I need to figure out my spots."

The intent that the Bulls had in getting Markkanen involved against Cleveland wasn’t there today, and he can do more to assert himself, as well.

"I know he's gonna work, and he cares, and he's got high character and I believe in him. And our team believes in him," Boylen said.

Another reality check

Not much to lament here. The Bucks aren’t just a better team, they’re the best team in the league — potentially historically so. Antetokounmpo had a relatively quiet 28 point, 14 rebound, 10 assist triple-double, despite going 3-for-9 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers. Khris Middleton was 10-for-13 from the field and Kyle Korver poured in an impactful 12 points on 5-for-5.

"They've got a star player. They can beat you from the 3-point line, they can beat you free throw line and they can beat you defensively when they don't have a night when their scoring," Boylen said. "That's what championship-caliber teams look like."

The Bulls are now 1-18 against teams above-.500 and 3-8 in the month of January. Back home for Minnesota on Wednesday.

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