Jimmy Butler takes over late to push Bulls to win over LeBron James, Cavs

Jimmy Butler takes over late to push Bulls to win over LeBron James, Cavs

In the midst of Jimmy Butler’s miserable night against the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Dwyane Wade went from co-star to Bundini Brown as the Bulls’ once solid lead was slipping away.

Wade’s message: “Win the game.”

And boy, did that young man rumble afterwards, turning in a 14-point fourth quarter to finish off the Cavs as the Bulls pulled back to .500 with a 106-94 win at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland—their second straight win over the champs this season.

“A guy that wears number 3 (Wade) came to me and was like, win the game,” Butler said. “I guess a switch cut on and get a couple baskets and tried to get some stops on the defensive end. I guess I did alright today.”

Butler followed up his exhilarating 52-point performance against Charlotte with a more subtle box score line of 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes, but his plays were loud—so loud they quieted the vociferous Cleveland crowd, or sent them wailing to themselves.

He took a squared-up charge on LeBron James when the Cavaliers cut the lead to one and James was charging downcourt on a one-man fast break. Butler guessed right on James’ move and took the physical contact, earning the call.

“He coming at you full speed, that’s the right play to make,” Butler said. “It can go either way. It went our way. We capitalized on it.”

Not having the best of nights, starting the fourth quarter two for 11, it didn’t seem likely Butler would put together another performance suitable for framing but perhaps he showed another step in his maturation in the last half of the fourth quarter.

Butler hit a triple on the ensuing possession, then hit a turnaround jumper over Richard Jefferson after grabbing a defensive rebound. All in all, he scored 10 straight for a reeling Bulls team and 12 of 14 as they put the shorthanded Cavaliers out of reach.

“The 4th quarter is always go time,” Butler said. “That’s when the biggest of the biggest players are supposed to show up. That’s when I showed I belong here.”

He made star plays.

Franchise Plays against the Franchise Player of today’s game.

“It’s my job to be aggressive. I know I was gonna have to do that in fourth anyways,” Butler said. “Him telling me that, you can’t let D-Wade down, he’s done it for years. I think it was my time to step up.”

Wade has been that guy before and played with the guy on the other end in James, so filling Butler’s head with confidence was the least he could do in the moment—particularly when Wade had great moments in the first matchup in early December.

“Last five minutes. That’s when you have to do it,” Wade said. “That’s’ when the greats separate themselves. LeBron is a different way, he’ll take over. He may get five assists. Jimmy’s is buckets (laughs). It’s getting them.”

To that point, James was getting the better of Butler and still finished with a line of 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 36 minutes, but without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers were shorthanded and the Bulls had to take advantage.

They responded with three of their best quarters of the season following a miserable first 12 minutes, finishing with 13 3-pointers and holding the Cavaliers to just four triples after the first quarter—doing most of the work without Butler.

“He was so positive in the huddles, continuing to talk about getting the bigs the ball,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, noting the contributions of Robin Lopez in the third as he had a couple buckets to stabilize things. “I thought the trust with our team was excellent, not just the defensive end but on offense.

The first quarter looked like a horror show, as the Cavaliers jumped to a 15-2 lead after a James triple midway through the period.

Some of the lesser-knowns took turns taking over, as Butler struggled with his shot and decided not to force the issue. Nikola Mirotic was in good mode, hitting two triples and showing a vast array of shots on his way to 16 points and four rebounds.

Doug McDermott hit his first five shots from the field in the first half, taking advantage of James’ ball watching to get free.

Michael Carter-Williams dunked over Jordan McRae and hit a couple jumpers in succession in the third to give the Bulls some breathing room.

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They led at the half and began pulling away, especially with Taj Gibson continuing his mastery over the Cavs, following up a 23-point, 11-rebound night with 18 points and seven boards, missing just one shot in 10 attempts.

“Doug was playing incredible, so was Niko,” Butler said. “If you’re open and it’s your shot, take it because that’s what the game is telling you what to do.”

But when the Cavaliers stormed back—on the backs of players like McRae (21 points) Channing Frye (15 points) and Kay Felder (nine), and James headed to the scorer’s table to a standing ovation from the crowd with nine minutes left, having took a tough tumble on his ankle earlier in the half, it was time for someone to take over the game.

“It don’t matter who’s on the floor, the ball’s coming to you,” Wade said. “And we want you to do you.”

And it was done by the burgeoning star, the young man who rumbled and rumbled against the biggest star of all.

Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year


Lauri Markkanen's and Zach LaVine's best dunks of the year

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen combined for 100 made dunks last season. But that would have been far too long of a video to make, so instead we condensed it down to their six best dunks of the season.

Which one was your favorite?

LaVine slams it home on the blocks leader (Mar. 5)

LaVine had a mini dunk contest in Indiana, but none more impressive than his dunk over Myles Turner. Robin Lopez set a high screen for LaVine, who attacked the rim instantly. LaVine got a step on Turner, who wound up leading the NBA in blocks per game, and flushed home a righty slam to tie the game early in the third quarter. LaVine finished with 27 points in the loss.

Lauri goes lefty on the Pistons (Mar. 8)

What’s more impressive than a 7-footer taking Blake Griffin off the dribble with his off-hand? That same 7-footer finishing a lefty dunk over Andre Drummond. That’s what Markkanen did early in this early March contest. Griffin got the best of Markkanen and the Bulls by the end of the night, but Markkanen started it out with a bang.

Arci saves, Otto oops, LaVine finishes (Mar. 6)

Sometimes the dunker gets the easy part. Ryan Arcidiacono had an incredible save to keep the ball in bounds in the Bulls backcourt. He tipped it right to Otto Porter who turned, took one dribble, and fed a perfect alley-oop to a streaking LaVine, who finished with an impressive one-handed slam. That it came during a nationally televised game (against Jimmy Butler) in a game the Bulls won made it all the more sweet. It was the Bulls’ best team play of the year.

Lauri’s R-rated drive past PG13 (Dec. 7)

Part of what makes Markkanen such an impressive talent is his versatility for a 7-footer. That was on full display against the Thunder in his third game back from his elbow injury. Markkanen set a screen for Zach LaVine and popped out to the 3-point line, with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George switching on to him. Markkanen caught George just the slightest bit out of position and took advantage, driving past him and in for a dunk. This one was special because 23 game minutes later, Markkanen won the game with a spinning layup over George and Steven Adams.

LaVine goes 360 for 2 on the Cavs (Nov. 10)

We take Zach LaVine for granted sometimes. There’s nothing normal about a human being so casual jumping into the air, doing a full spin, and dunking a ball through a hoop 10 feet off the ground. But LaVine did just that early in the first quarter against the Cavs. He was still rising as he threw it down for his first two points of the game. LaVine finished with 24 points on just 9 of 22 shooting, but also added eight rebounds and five assists. Don’t let the ease of the dunk fool you: This was his best of the season.

Lauri baptizes Nikola Vucevic (Dec. 21)

You knew we saved the best for last. Markkanen went way up the ladder for his best dunk of the year, slamming one home on Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic. Making the slam all the more impressive was that the shot clock was winding down – Markkanen caught the ball at the logo with 4.2 seconds left on the shot clock – but he didn’t settle, instead heading straight to the rim where he met Vucevic for the slam. It was part of a monster night for Markkanen facing a defense that finished the season 8th in efficiency. He scored 32 points - at the time a season-high – on 12 of 20 shooting. The technical foul was worth it.

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Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.