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.

Kris Dunn looks to build off Saturday's late-game heroics on Monday against the Thunder


Kris Dunn looks to build off Saturday's late-game heroics on Monday against the Thunder

With all the talk about Zach LaVine, Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter Jr. being foundation pieces for the next Bulls’ playoff team, you really couldn’t blame Kris Dunn for feeling a little left out.

After all, the 6 foot 4 point guard was an All-American at Providence and the fifth player selected in the 2016 draft. No one’s questioning his superior defensive skills, but his outside shooting and availability are still concerns as the Bulls’ front office plans for the future. Dunn only played in 52 games last season because of injuries, and he’s already missed 26 games this season because of a sprained knee. His career shooting averages are 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line.

Still, Dunn showed Saturday night in San Antonio why he still could be the Bulls’ starting point guard for many years to come. He scored a team-high 24 points, including the two baskets that sealed the Bulls’ come-from-behind win. Paired with Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt because of LaVine’s ankle injury, Dunn played much more aggressively on the offensive end, taking advantage of favorable match-ups to make 11-of-18 shots from the field.

Now, the front office and coaching staff is waiting to see if he can post those numbers on a more consistent basis while also developing chemistry with LaVine as the Bulls’ starting backcourt. Having Dunn step forward as the clear-cut answer at point guard would definitely simplify some of the Bulls’ roster decisions for next summer and beyond.

Dunn will face a major challenge Monday night against former league MVP Russell Westbrook and a highly motivated Oklahoma City Thunder squad. The Bulls snapped OKC’s four-game winning streak back on Dec. 7 in Jim Boylen’s first home game as head coach, 114-112.

Westbrook came on strong in the second half after an indifferent start to post a triple double with 24 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists, but he also turned the ball over 10 times. Paul George missed a wide open three in the closing seconds that would have won it for the Thunder, who are currently battling for one of the top seeds in the closely packed Western Conference.

Bottom line, the Bulls will have zero chance of catching the Thunder looking ahead to their next game. Physical center Steven Adams scored OKC’s first 12 points in the earlier meeting and you can expect Thunder coach Billy Donovan will go to his match-up with Carter early and often, especially given the rookie’s persistent foul problems.

The Bulls will need another big offensive game from Dunn and a return to form from Justin Holiday, who shot 1-of-12 from the field and 1-of-10 from the three-point line Saturday in San Antonio. Holiday scored 20 points against the Thunder earlier this month, making 4-of-6 tries from beyond the arc.

Look for Robin Lopez to get expanded playing time against the mountainous Adams and for Markkanen to take advantage of isolation match-ups against OKC’s undersized power forward Jerami Grant. Markkanen showed off a Dirk Nowitzki-esque step-back jumper agains the Spurs and appears to be finding his rhythm on offense after missing 2 months because of a sprained right elbow.

Boylen has talked about wanting to play at a slower tempo on the road to force opposing teams to defend for all 24 seconds on the shot clock, and of course, limiting possession for the explosive Westbrook is always a solid strategy. Here are a few other keys for keeping this game close.

1. Limit turnovers - The Bulls did a great job in this area on Saturday, only turning it over nine times against the Spurs. Westbrook and George love to play the passing lanes for steals and breakaway dunks which can be back-breakers for a young team playing in a loud arena like Oklahoma City’s.

2. Happy Holiday - Holiday was able to extend his franchise record three point streak to 41 games with his only field goal on Saturday, but the Bulls will need him to heat up from long range to hang with a powerful offensive team like OKC. Dunn’s ability to penetrate and draw help defenders should create some open looks for Holiday, Markkanen and Bobby Portis.

3. Keep Adams from dominating inside - Easier said than done with a player as physically imposing as the New Zealand native, but if the Bulls can win the rebound battle they should be able to stay in the game. Rebounding has been a key stat in just about every one of the Bulls’ seven victories, and it will be a point of emphasis again Monday night.

We invite you to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and me for Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Then as soon as the game goes final, flip back to NBC Sports Chicago for reaction and analysis on Bulls Postgame Live, followed by the always-entertaining Bulls Outsiders.

Make your plans to join us Monday night.

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Windy City Bulls roundup: JaKarr Sampson

Windy City Bulls roundup: JaKarr Sampson

In this edition of the Windy City roundup we look at JaKarr Sampson, who has been playing well in an intriguing role with the Windy City Bulls.

Sampson, a two-year player at St. John’s University, averaged 13 PPG and 6 RPG on 46 percent in his college career. However, the most impressive part of his college resume were the hustle stats. Over his two seasons in college, Sampson averaged just over two offensive rebounds per game and racked up 125 combined steals/blocks.

That mentality has followed him to the pros, where he has been great at getting to the rim, drawing fouls and blocking shots.

But Sampson hasn’t been spectacular with his finishing in the NBA. And on top of that, the lack of (any) noticeable progress with his shooting stroke makes it hard to find a spot for him, even in the increasingly position-less NBA.

But the Windy City Bulls and head coach Charlie Henry have been using Sampson as a small-ball center, with intriguing results.

Through 6 games in the 2018-19 NBA G League season, Sampson is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the field.

He is one of the tallest players on the team as, Windy City has no players taller than 6-foot 8 on the roster. Despite starting a 6-foot 8 player at center, Windy City has the 2nd best defensive rating in the league (100.6) over the last five games.

And while he has helped the Bulls have a great NBA G League defense, his offensive value also offers upside. Sampson has been able to use his quickness to beat lumbering bigs off the dribble. He has also gotten slightly better at timing his rolls to the basket to receive dump off passes from his guards.

For pretty much the first time in Sampson’s basketball career (even dating back to high school) he is starting to make an earnest attempt to stretch his range out to the 3-point line. He is taking just over two 3-point attempts per game. While he is shooting a poor 28 percent from deep, those couple 3-point attempts per night help Windy City’s offense by dragging opposing bigs out of the paint to contest shots.

Sampson’s aggressiveness is at an all-time high with the Bulls. He has a gargantuan usage rate that is north of 30 percent, impressive considering that he hasn’t had to shoulder a heavy load on offense in quite some time. He is turning the ball over a considerable amount and that is perhaps the one thing knocking down his offensive value.

He has an impressive assist rate from the center spot, so the skill is there and simply needs to be raised a level. That obviously becomes much easier when you play with better teammates.

If Sampson was to play with the Chicago Bulls, he obviously would be a low-usage player. This in turn could make his solid passing ability a huge plus, since the Bulls have some interesting offensive pieces with Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen all returning to join Zach LaVine in the rotation.

And with Sampson showing that he can be effective against centers who are non-scoring threats, he would be a nice player to give spot minutes to when Wendell Carter Jr. is in foul trouble (especially early in games).

Succeeding at the highest levels in today’s NBA is all about the 3-point shot, lineup versatility and a commitment to the defensive side of the ball. And Sampson checks off two of the three boxes with certainty, making him a solid bet to be one of the next Windy City Bulls players to receive a call up.