NEW ORLEANS — Evaluation time.
With nothing to play for except lottery position, the Bulls have found themselves in unfamiliar territory with two games remaining, meaning the roles have reserved among the personnel.
The proven players take seats, and the young guys take center stage — except for Jimmy Butler, who was determined to be on the floor for the Bulls’ 121-116 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night at the Smoothie King Center.
Pau Gasol sat, as the probability that he’s played his final game for the Bulls is a real option, along with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and E’Twaun Moore. It meant more of a look for Cristiano Felicio and first-round pick Bobby Portis to get extended time without looking over their shoulders, and they played with usual intensity.
It wasn’t much in the way of entertainment value, considering the Bulls were without prime players and the Pelicans have been riddled by injuries all season, but seeing Felicio and Portis wrestle with veterans Kendrick Perkins and former Bull Omer Asik was compelling enough to produce honest assessments.
Portis scored 13 with eight rebounds, while Felicio was again efficient around the rim, scoring 16 with six rebounds on 6-for-8 shooting.
“He’s still very early in the process and the sample size is still very small, but for everything that he’s shown out there that he can do it fits the way we want to play,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of Felicio when asked if the rookie could be a starter next season.
“He’s got the mobility and the athleticism to affect the game in a lot of ways. So we’re excited to have him back next year with another year under his contract, and we’ll see what happens. But I absolutely think Cris can be a long-term guy for the franchise."
Butler, the closest thing the franchise has to a long-term option, didn’t want to sit and essentially refused to stay on the bench with the vets, seizing an opportunity to play point guard like he boldly stated in the offseason.
After dishing out 11 assists through three quarters, he returned with six minutes remaining and many wondering why he or Hoiberg would put him in that situation given the stakes and his health.
Pouring in 12 fourth-quarter points to finish with 23 on 8-for-11 shooting, he felt it was his obligation to give the fans what they wanted — and the competitor in him perhaps wanted the challenge of finishing a game out.
“I tried to keep Jimmy under 30 minutes tonight,” Hoiberg said. “It says a lot. It says he wants to be the leader of this team. He was getting guys the ball, leading us to the finish line.
“He’s shown me a lot, shown his teammates a lot. He can get good looks for himself and his teammates. We run a lot of pick and roll (with him). Jimmy does a good job with that, he was making the right play all night long.”
Hoiberg almost didn’t put Butler back in the game at the midpoint mark of the fourth, but Butler’s stares down the sideline forced Hoiberg to playfully admit, “I caved, I caved.”
Butler scored nine straight to help the Bulls pull away, after helping Justin Holiday (14 points) and Nikola Mirotic (20 points) go off early. The Bulls shot a season-high 57 percent from the field.
Somewhat defiant about his reasoning to play with the stakes being meaningless, Butler laid out his case.
“I don’t ever want anybody to think I’m quitting on my team. I’m not,” Butler said. “I’m not saying Pau or Derrick is, either. That’s not what I’m saying. I love this game, I’m fortunate to play every day. If I can go out there and compete, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
When it comes to playing point guard, Butler knows the look might not be as smooth but he can be effective, as Monday was his fifth game with 10 assists or more.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Butler said. “It’s what I tell coach, what I tell Aaron (Brooks) when he jokes with me: I may not be the best shooter or passer, but I can pass the ball to the open man and I can get to where I need to on the floor.”
And being able to finish the game with some of the young players, he hopes will set some kind of example going forward.
“It’s very important. I was in that position in one point in time in my career, not too long ago,” Butler said. “I know what it feels like to want to get reps with guys who play more than you. When they see me out there competing, fighting with them, they’re always gonna give me everything they have on the floor. I want them to continue to compete, continue playing hard.”