Jimmy Butler's 52 points prompts MVP chants in Bulls' comeback win over Hornets

Jimmy Butler's 52 points prompts MVP chants in Bulls' comeback win over Hornets

The embodiment of the Eastern Conference was on full display at the United Center, as the Bulls and Charlotte Hornets are a little closer to finding out who they are but the difference between good and mediocre is slim.

So slim Dwyane Wade’s absence didn’t tilt the pendulum even more to the Hornets’ direction as they came in with confidence from a win last week, but the tables were turned in a big way.

An unexpected energy boost helped them early and their remaining star closed the night as Jimmy Butler pulled off yet another miracle at the United Center, scoring 27 of his season-high 52 points in the second half to help the Bulls to a 118-111 win over the Hornets Monday night.

Jumper after jumper, most in the face of defensive stopper Nic Batum, Butler did virtually everything in the fourth—and even reached the 50-point plateau for the second time in his career thanks to Hornets coach Steve Clifford picking up a technical late with Butler hitting the free throw.

“I didn't even know how many points I had,” said Butler, in the understatement of the night. “Until the tech, Mike (Carter-Williams) was like, ‘yo, get 50’. I just stepped up and made the free throw. Other than that, I had a groove. Coach kept drawing up a great play. Same play. Mike set a great screen.”

Butler added 12 rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes, hitting 15 of his 24 shots from the field, making nine of 13 of his shots after the half.

“It’s an understatement to say he was phenomenal,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He did it any which way. He rebounded, got to the free throw line, I loved his aggressiveness. He didn’t force the issue at all.”

Before that, Butler was serenaded with music from the crowd that felt like the best country drawl he’s heard—“M-V-P!”—as the Bulls stayed close enough for Butler to take over in the fourth when it looked like their admirable effort would go unrewarded with a third straight loss.

Kemba Walker scored 27 points with 11 assists and four rebounds, as the Hornets moved the ball around and around and around until something in the Bulls defense broke down—until the Bulls figured them out enough to let their leader lead them to a win.

“We changed up our coverages a bit,” said Hoiberg, a statement that was echoed by Taj Gibson in the locker room as he gave his somewhat-embattled coach a life raft.

“It was a learning process for Fred, to change the coverage late and we followed the playcall and we did our job,” Gibson said. “At the end of the game, he switched the defense up and we were more aggressive. He told me to attack, get into the double teams and it worked in our favor.”

A hot start to the fourth for the Hornets meant the Bulls were playing from behind for the final 12, although they were stalking the Hornets for most of it. They rode Doug McDermott while Butler took an early rest and were down three midway through the period.

Butler’s 3-point play tied the game at 100 with four minutes remaining. And his putback put the Bulls up 103-102.

There’s a theme here as no other Bull scored more than 12 points, with Nikola Mirotic hitting that mark and McDermott scoring 11 as he started in Wade’s place.

“The same mindset I always have, do whatever it takes to try to help this team win or maybe be a little more aggressive,” Butler said. “And try to get other people shots, it makes my job easier.”

The Bulls couldn’t get away from the Hornets and vice-versa as the Bulls finally received tangible production from the bench, as Denzel Valentine and Jerian Grant took some advantages created by the absences of Wade and Rajon Rondo.

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Valentine turned his left ankle late in the third and didn’t return, but got the Bulls off to a good start in his unexpected minutes, hitting three triples—including two in a row late in the second quarter to give the Bulls a lead.

“I thought Denzel was great,” said Hoiberg as he added that Valentine’s ankle was tender after the game. “The first time he touched the ball says everything you need to know about the kid. He fired up the three, I love that about him. He’s not afraid of the moment.”

Grant also scored nine, as he and Michael Carter-Williams were tasked with trying to slow down the speedy and crafty Walker, who torched all comers for six triples and he hit 13 of 19 shots overall as the Hornets shot 49.4 percent to the Bulls 46.7.

The pace was quickened and even Butler got into it, making quicker decisions as opposed to holding it and it resulted in easier looks and him getting to the line 22 times.

“I think that was part of the plan, be aggressive, get to the rim, shoot your shot when you're open see if you got a rhythm going, if I didn't I was passing the ball,” Butler said. “Late I stopped passing the ball. That was the goal, be aggressive from start to finish.”

Like his game-winner against the Hornets last week, Butler seems to step up at his best when the Bulls need him the most—and shined brightest for perhaps his finest hour.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season


New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction


Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”