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.