Bulls

Jimmy Butler carries Bulls on both ends: 'The great ones want all that on their plate'

Jimmy Butler carries Bulls on both ends: 'The great ones want all that on their plate'

Through 57 games Jimmy Butler has battled through various injuries, silenced the outside whispers of trade talks, and met questions about his leadership inside the Bulls’ locker room head on. Through all that noise the 27-year-old has emerged as one of the game’s best players, an honor which will be validated Sunday night when he starts in the All-Star Game alongside the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

But before shipping off to New Orleans for the weekend Butler had business to finish in Chicago. Specifically, the three-time All-Star was tasked with shutting down fourth-quarter sensation Isaiah Thomas on one end, while acting as the go-to scorer down the stretch on the offensive end.

And though it didn’t end in a dazzling buzzer beater or one of his vintage lockdown defensive stands, Butler did it once again for the Bulls, adding another highlight to an already remarkable season in the Bulls’ 104-103 victory over the red-hot Celtics.

Marcus Smart nicked Butler on his shooting elbow with 0.9 seconds remaining and the Bulls trailing by one. Butler, who had made 43 of 44 clutch free throws this season, calmly sank a pair of freebies to give the Bulls a lead. And it was he who defended Al Horford’s shot at the buzzer that missed long and sealed the Bulls’ victory in the NBA’s final game before the All-Star break.

“I was still hoping it went in,” Butler said after the game. “We ran it the way we were supposed to. We got the look that we wanted. I told Jerian (Grant) what move I was gonna do, and (Smart) got a piece of the elbow. At the end of the day (referee Zach Zarba) made the right call.”

Butler’s late drawn foul and subsequent free throws were the end result of a masterful fourth quarter. And the competition he did it against couldn’t have been a more difficult matchup. Boston entered Thursday’s game having won 11 of 12, and leading scorer Isaiah Thomas had averaged 32.6 points and nearly 4 triples per game in February. More than that, Thomas entered averaging 10.7 points per fourth quarter, the highest mark since the NBA began tracking the stat in 1996.

That made the Bulls’ situation all the more perilous when Brad Stevens subbed Thomas in with 8:47 remaining and the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead. Fred Hoiberg countered with bringing back Butler, who drew the arduous assignment of guarding Thomas down the stretch.

"That was kind of our plan going in, that Michael (Carter-Williams) was going to spend the majority of the time on (Thomas). And then Jimmy in the fourth quarter was going to be the guy that we were going to switch on to him. (Thomas is) just such a tough cover,” Fred Hoiberg said of Thomas, who is second in the NBA in scoring, “the way he finishes over size, he pulls up from anywhere on the court, has unlimited range and does a great job getting to the free throw line.”

Thomas was every bit as good as advertised in the final stanza, Of the final 19 points the Celtics scored in the final frame, Thomas had a hand in 16 of them, with 11 points and two assists to Kelly Olynyk on a pair of jumpers. But Butler made Thomas work for his points, chasing around the 5-foot-9 point guard and forcing him into passes or quick shots. With the Celtics up one with 1:10 remaining Butler blocked a Thomas layup attempt. The next trip down Butler also closed out on Thomas’ left wing 3-pointer which was off the mark and set up the Bulls’ game winning possession.

“He’s a lot to deal with,” Butler said bluntly after the game.

But defense was only half the story. Playing without Dwyane Wade for the third straight game, the Bulls offense minus Butler was crawling to the finish line. After beginning the fourth quarter 4-for-9 from the field, hanging on to a lead built up with a 29-point third quarter, the Bulls finished the game 1-for-8, with Butler’s bank shot to tie the game at 94 apiece the lone make at the 4:58 mark.

It was just enough offense to get it done, just as Smart got just enough of Butler’s elbow to draw a whistle. Butler initiated offense, found open shooters (despite the misses) and finished with nine points of his own in the final period, essentially matching Thomas as best he could.

And with the game on the line Butler made his free throws look anything but pressure-filled.

“In a time like that I do it all the time in the gym by myself before the game,” he said. “Nothing. No pressure.”

As far as basketball clichés go, “two-way players” can often get overused. But it’s exactly what Butler was on Thursday, carrying an offense while shadowing the league’s second-leading scorer the final 9 minutes of the game. Butler, who finished with 29 points on 9-for-20 shooting and seven assists, has transformed himself into one of the game’s best players, but Thursday he looked like a true superstar, taking over the game and stepping up when it mattered most.

“It’s what he wants. And really it’s what the great players want,” Hoiberg said. “Looking back in the history, the great ones want all that on their plate. Jimmy’s no exception. He’s a guy that’s going to go out and take the challenge, anything that’s given to him. And it pays off more often than not.”

Thursday night was also important for a Bulls team caught in between contending in the East and tearing it all down in place of a rebuild. The outcome – it was also the Bulls’ 17th consecutive TNT Thursday home win – won’t make the decisions Gar Forman and John Paxson make this week toward the trade deadline any easier.

The Bulls have won two straight – against the Raptors and Celtics, no less – and have an impressive 9-8 record against the six teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. Though the Bulls enter the All-Star break with a losing record for the first time since 2010 and have far more questions than answers on their roster, they’re also on track to make the postseason in the subpar bottom half of the East.

No matter who’s dealt or brought in before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, with Butler leading the way the Bulls will always feel as though they have a chance to win games. It showed Thursday against a Celtics team that’s inching closer to the Cavs atop that Eastern Conference. And barring a blockbuster deal that sends Butler to the team he tormented for 40 minutes on Thursday, the Bulls will have that player as they continue their push toward .500 and a postseason berth.

“It just shows that we’re capable of winning games. Moving forward we can’t worry about who we’re beating. We’ve got to go against everybody the same,” Butler said. “Home away, neutral site, whatever it may be: win. That’s all that matters."

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

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USA TODAY

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.