Bulls

Bulls: Jimmy Butler faced with task of slowing down LeBron James

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Bulls: Jimmy Butler faced with task of slowing down LeBron James

There’s no greater high for the Bulls than closing out a series with a record-54 point margin for a victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, and no greater subsequent challenge than taking on the four-time MVP in his prime in his home building.

Jimmy Butler will be on the frontline of defenders Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James will see Monday night, and through the duration of the Bulls-Cavs series, which tips off at Quicken Loans Arena.

James is one of the few players Butler can’t outmuscle at his position, while Butler is one of the few who can physically match up with perhaps the most gifted basketball player of his size in NBA history. 

Butler sounded like a man who knew the inevitable was coming—that he’d have to be James’ shadow for nearly 48 minutes in the series opener—but resignation doesn’t mean fear from Butler’s end.

[MORE BULLS: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs]

“I like to think I’m big and physical as well. We’ll see,” said Butler, who’s averaging 42.2 minutes in six playoff games this spring. “It’s playoff basketball. It’s never just me guarding him anyways. We’ll see what all this matchup stuff is about. I want to help win, no matter who I’m guarding. Tonight, it’ll probably be LeBron James.”

That means advice can come from any and everybody on guarding James, which is why Derrick Rose won’t publicly divulge what he’ll tell his backcourt mate, if he has specific advice at all.

“I’ll keep that to myself,” Rose said after catching himself.

James averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and 6.3 assists in the Cavaliers’ four-game sweep over the Boston Celtics in the first round.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“I think he’s focused. I think he’s going to take that challenge,” Rose said. “But who knows what he’s actually going through? When you’re playing against one of the best players in the NBA and you’re coming in this arena knowing how much he did in this arena, I think nerves play a little part to it. But I know during the game, that should be gone. And he should be ready.”

Considering Butler is the Bulls’ leading scorer (24.8 points against Milwaukee), he knows he has to balance the delicate dance between expending his energy chasing James around and making him work on defense. As great as James is, he doesn’t have an endless reservoir of energy, and has appeared to coast on defense at times this season to save his body.

The prospect of matching up with James can lead to the most confusing of answers, even to the most unflappable players.

“Yes, no. I don’t know the answer to that,” said Butler when asked if he needs to focus more on offense. “I think I have to be aggressive but I don’t think I have to put all my energy on the offensive end. I think I have to spend a lot of energy on the defensive end. It’s definitely gonna be a balance tonight and the rest of the series.”

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

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AP

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Moral victory for the Bears?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Moral victory for the Bears?

David Schuster, Adam Jahns and Patrick Finley join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Dave Wannstedt joins the panel to discuss the Bears 38-31 loss to the Patriots? Was it a moral victory? Is Matt Nagy crazy to say Mitch Trubisky didn’t play that bad?

13:00- Joe Girardi pulls his name out of the Reds managerial search and Jon Heyman reports that industry sources believe he might wait to see if there’s an opening in Chicago. What are the chances that he replaces Joe Maddon?

14:30- Adam Amin joins Kap to preview the Bulls/Mavericks game and discuss the lack of defense in the NBA.