“Jimmy’s been incredible,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He’s a star. He does it on both ends of the floor. He’s an amazing player.”
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Butler's big night not enough in Denver

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By Sam Smith | 11.26.2014 | 2:17 a.m. CT

It’s still the first month of the NBA season, so no time to panic about Derrick Rose sitting out the second half of the 114-109 Bulls loss to the Denver Nuggets Tuesday; no great concern about the loss that dropped the Bulls to 9-6 and 2-3 on this long road trip.

Better to celebrate perhaps the birth of a star, the Bulls Jimmy Butler with a career-high equaling 32 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter along with five rebounds as the Bulls got within four points with just over a minute left after trailing by 16 earlier in the quarter.

But this Bulls team, especially with Joakim Noah sitting out to rest his ailing knee and eye that got hit Monday and Taj Gibson back in Chicago with a sprained ankle, doesn’t make the big defensive plays much anymore. So the Nuggets got clutch baskets in the last minute from Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson to escape in a game they never trailed.

Though just barely given the relentless play of Butler, who was 18 of 20 from the free throw line as Butler beat bigger Nuggets defenders off the dribble and then posted up the small defenders as the Nuggets threw player after player at him and eventually multiple players without much success.

“Jimmy’s been incredible,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “He’s a star. He does it on both ends of the floor. He’s an amazing player.”

Yes, lil’ old Jimmy Butler from Tomball, Texas, as Butler so often likes to say. Which is sort of his personal reminder that it always was the hard way for him, that he wasn’t supposed to be in the NBA, and he’s certainly not supposed to be excelling like he has as the team’s leading scorer.

“I’m not a star,” argued Butler, who shrugs off praise as well as he does opponents. “I’m a good role player on a really good team, a deep team. Star never has been next to Jimmy Butler’s name; never will be. I’ll always be an under the radar dog.”

Referring to yourself in the third person, though. That’s a start.

The NBA certainly is starting to watch out as Butler’s star is shooting as brightly as any of the top players of the game. Butler is in the top 15 in scoring and steals, among the top five rebounders for guards and No. 1 in the league in minutes per game at barely under 40. No problem for Jimmy Butler.

“This is what I love to do,” said Butler, remembering well the way he begged coach Tom Thibodeau for playing time his first year and a half in the NBA. “My teammates and coaches think I can help the team win when I’m out there 40-plus minutes. I’ll take that as a sign of a lot of respect and it only gives me more confidence.”

It’s been vital for the Bulls in this injury morass of a start with Noah and Gibson out Tuesday, Kirk Hinrich back from a chest contusion and rib injury but going out at one point when being hit again, and then Rose leaving after 10 uninspired minutes in the first half with two points.

Perhaps Rose should not have played in the second of the back to back after being back just one game after missing four with a hamstring injury. Thibodeau may have realized that as he said he approached Rose at halftime and suggested Rose not play the second half. Rose remained in the locker room to get treatment, but said he suffered no setback and Thibodeau agreed it was merely his own personal concern. Though Rose clearly was not moving well, hesitant to drive to the basket and slow to react on defense.

Of course, that pretty much matches the rest of the team these days as the Bulls were beaten on the boards again and do not even rate in the top half of the league, outscored in the paint, where they usually dominate, and fortunate to be in the game with Denver having a 23-9 fast break edge. The Bulls can score, especially with Pau Gasol in the post as he had 22 points and 11 rebounds and probably could have had more. But with the Bulls rotating cast of players sometimes the offense stagnates and results in forced jump shots.

Without Noah and Gibson, Thibodeau started rookie second rounder Cameron Bairstow. As good as Gasol is, he’s not a great help defender and with Bairstow, the Bulls had no chance cutting off the lane. That’s been the main element of their great defenses in the last few years. But with the many injuries to Noah and Gibson, the mainstays of the defense, it’s been difficult for Thibodeau to create his “on-a-string” mechanism that’s been so successful in recent years. So the Bulls found themselves closing Tuesday with Gasol at center, Mike Dunleavy at power forward, Butler, Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, the latter a good scorer but weak defender. It’s hardly the classic defensive finishing group Thibodeau likes to rely upon. So this Bulls team has to outscore the opposition. And they almost did once again, though Butler and Gasol came up a bit short.

It would, obviously, have helped with Rose in there, though not the way he was a struggling through the first half. Though Rose said after the game with two days off he is looking toward playing Friday in Boston, you’d have to wonder what the hurry is given players staying out two to four weeks with hamstring injuries.

Returning from two years of knee injuries, such ancillary injuries are expected to be part of the process. Perhaps frustrating, they need to be dealt with in a rational and not emotional manner. It seemed at halftime Thibodeau understood that.

“It was really nothing that happened,” Thibodeau said after the game. “Other than I didn’t want to take any chances with him. The way the game was going, the way we were going, I just felt at that point I wanted to go a different way. He’s didn’t reinjure himself or anything like that. I just didn’t want to take a chance. We’ve got a couple of days now, regroup and the way they were playing, the way we were playing I wanted to see if we could change it with a different type of ball pressure. I knew the start of the third quarter (with the Bulls trailing 56-49 at halftime), the defensive transition and the speed of the game (needed to increase). That was my big concern and I didn’t want to take a chance there. That’s basically it.”

Similarly, Rose agreed.

“It wasn’t anything where I was limping or I pulled it again or anything,” said Rose. “It was just that I wasn’t moving the way I wanted to while I was on the floor. I wasn’t able to affect the game the way that I wanted to, so I came in here and talked to Thibs and we agreed on just sitting out. He initiated it and I agreed with him. I felt like I wasn’t where I wanted to be. We have a good team, so I just gave it a shot to my teammates.

“I’m just trying to be smart,” Rose added. “We’re on a back-to-back, got fatigued and I didn’t want to take any steps back. Offensively, I just felt like I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go and defensively, just the speed of the game. I just wasn’t ready for it fatigue-wise and I’m just trying to be smart.

“It’s frustrating,” Rose acknowledged, “but I can’t let it get me down. At the end, this is going to be just minor. It’s a long season and I’ve just got to keep going. I know the team is not worried about me. I should be good.”

Rose said given there was no pull or anything reinjured, he had no regrets giving it a try on the second of the back to back. “No setbacks, no pain,” he reiterated.

But Rose conceded these trials are getting wearying.

“Very humbling,” Rose admitted. “I just know my destiny is big. Just putting me through a lot right now for some reason. The only thing I can do is stay consistent with my routine and get the most out of every day; everything else is out of my control.”

And so on this goes and the signs are it’s going to be like this on and off. Though perhaps that should be no surprise because there are no magical recoveries from missing two years of NBA play with major knee surgeries. Especially when you play with the speed, acceleration and torque of someone like Rose, which is rare even for top athletes. The body simply has to adjust to basically not being used for two years and then being driven 100 miles per hour.

Though as Thibodeau noted, it’s hardly just Rose, which probably had a lot to do with Thibodeau’s little mini fit after the Jazz win Monday when he lamented about players needing to play. He probably had an idea then he was losing Noah even though it didn’t become clear until game time Tuesday. After all, it’s tough to imagine Thibodeau even with all his preparation making up game plays this summer that involved Cameron Bairstow starting.

“Derrick’s not the only one,” Thibodeau said sharply. “We’ve got a lot of stuff going on here; we’ve got to get people healthy. That’s got to be a priority. Whoever is in there, get the job done. Just find a way to win. Obviously we have to get our defense and rebounding squared away. We have more than enough offense, but we have to have an understanding of how hard we have to play defensively to give ourselves a chance to win.”

We’ve heard Thibodeau’s mantra for years of next player up and whoever is in there to do the job. But you don’t build great defensive systems with average defensive players and when you cannot count on your best defenders to be out there on any regular basis.

Such was the circumstance once again Tuesday as the Bulls could not do much to stop the Nuggets, who even with a good run lately are an erratic team. Ty Lawson is their engine and scorer, but he makes loads of questionable passes at the feet of big men on the run and their bench is questionable. Still, the Nuggets led 31-21 after one quarter as Kenneth Faried predictably had a big quarter against Bairstow.

Butler again carried the offense along with terrific moves from Gasol inside. Though it was interesting to recall after Monday’s game Gasol warned that Butler cannot keep this up this pace of having so much offense run for him and taking the hot player as Butler even went onto Lawson for several possessions.

Talking about Butler after Monday’s game, Gasol said: “Jimmy’s very aggressive. He’s been playing excellent so far. I didn’t know him personally before, but I think his game has gone to another level. I’m very proud of what he is doing and how he’s playing and how aggressive and effective he’s been on both ends of the floor. Now he has to sustain. He is playing a lot of minutes; with the schedule we have it’s not going to be easy to sustain. So hopefully we’ll be able to do well and give him a little more rest in games.”

Hinrich returned from his rib injury and predictably took a charge right away and got another shot to the ribs from Lawson that had Hinrich sit out a bit. But he played 31 minutes and had 10 points and eight assists and made several big plays in the Bulls late comeback.

The reserve unit with Brooks scoring 16 closed the gap to start the second quarter and Gasol closed the half with some deft post moves to cut the Nuggets lead to 56-49 at halftime. The Bulls pulled within 64-61 midway through the third quarter on Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy threes. But Lawson had a huge close to the third quarter against Brooks without the usual defensive help or even maneuvers that drive the pick and roll to the baseline where the help is waiting. There’s no such anticipation anymore.

The Nuggets led 86-76 after three and then bolted out to a big lead to open the fourth. Butler began to bring the Bulls back outmuscling even Nuggets big men to the ball and getting fouled.

“I truly just want to win,” said Butler. “Both of the games where I scored 32 we lost. So I’ll take scoring two points and win (rather) than 32 and lose any day. We got to go back to the drawing boards and figure it out. ”

“We’ve had him play the point,” said Thibodeau of Butler. “We’ve had him play the two, the three and tonight he played the four and he hasn’t had any opportunity to practice the four. It’s that he’s smart, he’s tough, he does whatever the team needs. He found a way to help lead us into coming back and having shot at end.”

But the Nuggets got those two late jumpers that thwarted what would have been an amazing Bulls comeback. In yet another Bulls night of all sorts of drama and intrigue.

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