Jimmy Butler accepting challenge of overtaking LeBron James


Jimmy Butler accepting challenge of overtaking LeBron James

In no mood to discuss an upcoming award that was rightly well-deserved, Jimmy Butler turned the white-hot mirror of basketball criticism onto himself after having a front row seat to LeBron James elevating his game in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between Butler’s Bulls and James’ Cavaliers.

The soon-to-be-named Most Improved Player was schooled by the four-time Most Valuable Player Wednesday, one game after Butler began carving out a bigger and greater name for himself to start the series.

Restricted free-agent to be against Max Player of all max players. 

Unfair, right?

The game illustrates and inalienable truth Butler couldn’t avoid if he wanted to, that neutralizing James with his own play is likely the difference between going onto the conference finals and going home.

James scored 33 with eight rebounds and five assists, working himself into a lather early and believing his teammates would follow. Working Butler into a tizzy was an ancillary benefit.

“He was aggressive but I wasn’t aggressive on defense,” Butler said. “It was easy for him. He got to the rim too easy. Lots of layups. Reckless fouling. He did what he said he was gonna do.”

[MORE: LeBron, Cavs flip the script on Bulls in Game 2 victory]

Butler knew James was going to come out strong, and devastating. He wanted his teammates to be up to task. Clearly, whether they admitted it or not, the Bulls were satisfied with stealing one game on the road and swapping home court advantage—but it can be all taken away with one bad 48-minute stretch—and we all know the Bulls are more than capable of that.

“(We) came out sluggish. We weren’t guarding,” Butler said. “We were trying to outscore them. We’ve been saying we can’t do that all year, that it’s easily correctable. It starts with me and like I always say I have to be the one who sets the tone on defense.”

If Butler is to be believed, and nobody would ever misconstrue Butler for being fake, then this team has to, in large measure, follow Butler. As much as Derrick Rose is the heart of this team, and the face, Butler owns the Bulls’ attitude.

It’s not so much bravado as it is reality, as Butler looks at James as a peer and not some deity worthy of praise.

“He’s just another player,” Butler often says.

When Butler sees James rise off the bench and saunter to the scorer’s table after brief rests, Butler nonchalantly accepts his fate, steals a few more seconds of time off his feet before heading in that direction.

In his head, you can almost see Butler say to himself: “I will follow him wherever he goes, even if it’s to the bathroom”.

Butler is the man standing in the way of a transcendent player doing something unprecedented in today’s NBA. Since the playoffs expended to 16 teams in 1984, no player has led his team to five straight NBA Finals—a feat James is in line to accomplish, if he can get past Butler, run him over, go around him or whatever phrase best fits this matchup.

Larry Bird was stopped by Isiah Thomas and the Pistons in 1988 from achieving such a feat. Retirement apparently stopped Michael Jordan in the mid-90s, and the most Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant ever did was reach the Finals three times in a row.

The reason is it’s too damn hard to go back to the emotional well time after time—and there must be an opponent worthy of driving a superstar to his physical and mental limit before he says “No Mas”.

That’s Butler’s test, to wear James down, but he must do it while also keeping his own reservoir above empty. Butler watched James take a couple plays off and actually look exhausted late after a strong start—not to mention James pulling himself out of the game with 7:58 left in the first quarter after willing his team to an early 13-2 advantage.

“Yeah, that’s what he does,” Butler said. “He’s the leader of his team and he controls a lot of it. Whether he’s pulling himself out or calling plays, he knows what he’s doing.”

[RELATED: LeBron continues his domination of Bulls in Game 2s]

It wasn’t a shot at James, just more acceptance of the stakes, and the magnitude of his responsibility. Butler went to the bench with James, although he wasn’t feeling so tired at the time.

His backcourt mate, perhaps unwilling in intent to put more pressure on him but aligned together in assessing things as they are, put it bluntly.

“This is the matchup that’s could definitely build his confidence as far as being a superstar player,” Rose said. “He’s playing against a player that’s extremely talented, that puts so much pressure on a defense just by having the ball.”

“Jimmy, he’s gotta take that challenge. I think that last game, he showed up. He did a great job of having bodies in front of (James). I think it’s gonna take a little minute to get there.”

After James’ domination in Game 2, Butler was asked if Rose’s assessment was fair—while Rose was 10 feet away.

“That’s fair. I have to outplay guys. End of story,” he said.

Even a guy like LeBron?

“Yeah. I have to produce," he answered. "That’s my job on this team, to guard and score baskets. It’s not too much to be asked because I think I’m very capable of it.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoffs, Bulls fans!]

And if you want a reason why the Bulls don’t fear the specter of LeBron James, take in Butler’s words. And if you want a reason how the Bulls can beat the Cavaliers and keep their season going, consider Butler’s attitude—it might be their only hope.

“We’ll fix everything on Friday.”

As for the award, that’s a happy day for another day.

“Not too much right now,” said Butler when asked to reflect on it. “I’m focused on helping this ballclub win some games. I want to win this series, I want to win a championship. At the end of the season, maybe this Most Improved Player Award will mean a lot more.”

Because in the meantime, he needs sleep. James is headed back to the scorer’s table, and Butler’s sure to follow.

“I will follow him wherever he goes.”

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls


'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done


Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."