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Jimmy Butler teaches a lesson in Bulls' win over Suns

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Jimmy Butler teaches a lesson in Bulls' win over Suns

Jimmy Butler had high praise for Phoenix Suns rookie Devin Booker but that praise came with a bit of a lesson, as Booker learned it the painful way: Talking trash to a guy who’s looking for a reason to get fired up is a bad idea.

“He was talking trash to me,” Butler said. “That’s what was crazy. He was talking to me. I was like, ‘Excuse me.’”

The incredulousness in Butler’s voice manifested itself in the fourth quarter, as Butler abused the league’s youngest player in the fourth quarter after the Suns had everything on their side: A raucous crowd that was filled with a lot of red in the stands, momentum after trailing by 17 and coming in on a three-game winning streak, all by double digits.

But they didn’t have Jimmy Butler, who made the Suns pay in the last 12 minutes for 14 points on his way to a season-high 32, as the Bulls put away a pesky Suns team at Talking Stick Resort Arena, 103-97, for an encouraging start to a three-game western swing.

Booker blocked a Butler layup in the fourth and barked at him a bit the next time downcourt, even hitting a pair of triples to help build precious second-half momentum.

Then Butler put the Booker on the block the next two times, luring Booker into biting on pump fakes for fouls, the latter a three-point play as Booker’s hack was no match for Butler’s strength.

He proceeded to let the crowd know he was feeling it, much to the approval of a big chunk of the fans in attendance, and looking forward to the challenge of going head-up with the reigning MVP of the NBA champs on Friday, Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

“Yep. I look forward to guarding everybody in this league, especially a prime time scorer like him,” Butler said. “So I’ll ask coach for that matchup. No disrespect to him but I like that.”

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Butler finally admitted he loves the opportunities of having his teammates look for him when they need a big basket, the hallmark of a player determined to prove he’s worth every bit of a maximum contract he signed over the summer.

“It just shows how far I’ve come and how I worked on my game to be able to score the ball late and for my teammates to know my ability to score,” Butler said. “That’s the utmost respect coming from them to me and me returning the favor because I’m showing I can put the ball in the basket.”

With Nikola Mirotic struggling and Derrick Rose out, Butler knew much more of the burden would fall on his shoulders, as he wouldn’t allow Hoiberg to take him out for a quick spell to start the fourth.

“I tried to take him out, he wouldn't let me,” Hoiberg said. “It was almost like his energy level went on in that fourth quarter and that's what big time performers do. They step up when you need it most.”

Booker just happened to provide a little extra kerosene on a smoldering fire that was bound to explode in the final stanza.

“Kid has got potential. He can really shoot,” Butler said. “But sometimes I think you should just play the game and let that be it.”

Booker was feeling the momentum, as the Suns stalked the Bulls for the better part of three quarters after a disastrous opening 12 minutes and even took an 88-87 lead with 4:47 left.

“I knew we would be in for a heck of a battle,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They picked up the pressure. They were the tougher team for a stretch but we got it back at the end.”

[MORE: Rose's availability vs. Warriors in question]

On one possession in the second half, the Bulls allowed six offensive rebounds close to the basket until PJ Tucker scored on the lucky seventh try, as their aggressiveness forced 20 turnovers to make up for shooting just 41 percent from the field.

Without Rose (ankle) and having Aaron Brooks tweak his left hamstring twice, Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight looked to have field days on the perimeter, getting to the paint and combining for nearly half of the Suns’ scoring (44 points).

But Kirk Hinrich helped aid Butler in his cause of saving the Bulls on the character-building road opener, hitting a triple after a Pau Gasol driving dunk, part of his 14-point, six-assist performance.

“I put him back in there and hit that huge 3 off that ball screen. He played solid minutes,” Hoiberg said. “He's the one, early in that game he did such a good job getting us into an offense and getting our defense organized.”

Gasol got the Bulls off to a 72-percent shooting start by making his first five shots on his way to a 17-point night, and before Brooks got hurt, he made his presence felt after getting shut out of playing time against the Pacers with 12 points and five assists in 19 minutes.

But in 42 grueling minutes, the night belonged to Butler, setting the tone and perhaps firmly establishing himself at the top of this food chain.

A lesson Booker learned the hard way.

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

In a five-game span Wendell Carter Jr. saw preseason action against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner. The 19-year-old rookie had his share of expected ups and downs but performed well enough that Fred Hoiberg officially announced him a starter for the team’s season opener tomorrow night.

His reward for all that hard work? A matchup against All-Pro center Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be an eye-opening experience for the Duke product, who just a year ago was readying himself for his first season of college basketball and a season-opening matchup against Elon. It’s safe to assume Embiid will pose a few more problems than did Phoenix center Tyler Seibring.

“Joel Embiid was one of my role models growing up,” Embiid said before practice Wednesday. “He was someone I always wanted to pattern my game after. Just to go up against him is a remarkable feeling. He’s a very physical player. He’s a very talented player. I’m going to be able to stack up and see what all I need to work on to last in this league.”

While it’s no easy task against a talent like Embiid, who was named All-NBA Second Team last season, Carter’s most important job will be staying out of foul trouble. Carter piggy-backed an impressive Summer League with a preseason that included averages of 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. But those numbers also included 7.7 fouls per 48 minutes. He racked up 17 fouls in five games, and had at least three in each.

Embiid only went to the line five times in Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics, but that was primarily against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford. Embiid won’t face as much resistance against Carter, putting the pressure on the rookie to stay on the floor.

“He’s going to have to navigate that without using his hands,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to be all five aware. It’s just not a one-man problem with Embiid. We have to have great awareness of him and try and mix up coverages and hopefully make him take tough shots, knowing that he’s going to hit some of those. You just can’t get deflated when he does.’’

The decision was a mere formality – Bobby Portis will start at power forward – after the frontcourt combination played considerably better in the Bulls’ final two preseason games. Though Jabari Parker was initially slotted in at power forward following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow sprain, Portis’ impressive preseason forced Hoiberg’s hand. Portis averaged 17.0 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field in just 22.4 minutes.

“It’s all about combinations out there and we felt like Bobby gave us a great start with the way he was playing,” Hoiberg said. “And then we kind of changed things up with that second unit and put the ball in Jabari’s hands, so it was more that in trying to get guys out there with the right combinations.”

Lopez may have an expanded role if Carter gets into foul trouble early, while Parker will be the facilitator on a second unit that doesn’t have much in the way of a point guard. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the frontcourt will play out once Markkanen returns in roughly a month; if Portis and Carter continue playing well, Hoiberg could opt to keep them together on the second unit and put Lopez back in the starting lineup.

But for at least Opening Night – the Bulls also get Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Saturday – it’ll be the seventh overall pick getting his NBA feet wet with a matchup against arguably the best center in basketball. But’s it a role he’s earned, and on a Bulls defense looking for any sort of improvement, Carter is the player who can anchor it.

“His defense is always going to be important for us. He’s the guy that’s the anchor in that starting unit at the rim,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s done a really solid job of making perimeter guys taking contested shots when he gets switched off, or staying vertical at the rim and trying to make a big finish over the top of him, so yeah, again it’s a great challenge, great opportunity for Wendell.”

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: The ultimate Bulls briefing to get you ready for Opening Night

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski sits down with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue to discuss all the need-to-know topics to get you ready for the season opener. The guys analyze how Lauri’s injury will make its mark on the early season rotation, whether Jabari will return to the starting unit or embrace the 6th-man role and why Portis betting on himself is the right move. Plus, Kendall has the key to unlock a “6th Man of the Year” award for Portis this season.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: