Jimmy Butler leads the team in scoring and steals, is third in rebounding and second in three point percentage.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Jimmy Butler's career-high not enough against Pacers

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This time Butler couldn’t do it; at least not enough. Jimmy Butler, continuing his breakout season, scored a career high 32 points Saturday. But it wasn’t close to a solution for the Bulls as the decimated Indiana Pacers led almost the entire game on the way to a 99-90 victory.

Derrick Rose was out with a hamstring injury, but the Pacers had four starters missing. So Indiana relied on a 16th man waived twice in the last six months and in the NBA only because of a special exception because the Pacers had so many injuries, and two refugees from the D-league and China. The names were so unfamiliar and talents so marginal, the Philadelphia 76ers were interested in them. But at least the result confirmed Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s constant warning than anyone in the NBA can defeat you. Someone, anyone, did to give the Bulls a losing record at home as they leave on a 15-day road trip.

“I think we were low energy on offense and defense,” lamented Thibodeau. “We got beat in every aspect of the game from start to finish. We’ve got to figure it out. We have to figure out how to play better here. We have to have an edge about us at home. We were flat; other than Jimmy who was terrific, terrific every game, and Kirk (Hinrich with 15 points and seven assists) played a strong game. We were looking (anywhere) to get something going.”

As a result, Thibodeau tried more combinations, sitting Mike Dunleavy in the fourth quarter for Tony Snell, yanking Aaron Brooks and Taj Gibson. Nothing much resulted as the Bulls fell behind by 17 points with 6:42 left to a team playing the second of a back to back and which had trailed at home Friday by 33 points.

It happens; long season and all that. Some days you come to work and you really want to do well and you just can’t get going. No coffee breaks in the NBA. Happens to everyone at times. After all, the Bulls are 7-3 with a 5-0 road start.

Pau Gasol had a rough game with four of 15 for 12 points as he was thwarted too often inside by the long reach of Roy Hibbert. It was a game to go to his jump shot and take Hibbert away from the basket, though Gasol suggested afterward he needed more second half opportunities in the post (he was one of two shooting in the second half).

The bench was poor again, which suddenly seems to be an issue. Brooks was torched by 16th man A.J. (Another Jumper?) Price, who had 21 off the bench to join Solomon Hill of Fort Wayne Mad Ants fame with 21 and Luis Scola also with 21. The Pacers bench outscored the Bulls’ 30-20 as opponent reserves have averaged 37 points per game against the Bulls the last five games. Thibodeau has pretty much stuck with a bench rotation of Brooks, Gibson, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic playing together and they’ve been stagnant of late. The Bulls were outscored badly to start both the second and fourth quarters when Thibodeau went mostly with reserves. In the first six minutes of those quarters, the Bulls were outscored by 20 points.

Also, Joakim Noah, doing his best emotionally to rally the team late in the game, again seemed to struggle with his knee issues from his summer surgery. He was repeatedly late getting to Scola, who blitzed the Bulls with pick and pop jumpers and shot 10 of 12. That also left Noah scrambling to try to get back to the boards and the Bulls were outrebounded 46-34. The rebounding deficits, which have been frequent this season, usually stem from those sorts of matchups when Noah is trying to get to a shooting forward and then unable to get in rebounding position. He and the Bulls will have to determine whether it’s best to play into better physical condition or better to take a few games off.

“We were going to the boards, trying to be aggressive, but they kept making runs,” said Gibson. “You don’t have that edge right away and a team is coming in getting blown out the night before, you get humbled really fast. That’s one thing about our league. We got humbled. We have to correct our home court, the way we play and perceive it. When you are at home you can get lax at times because you feel the crowd is going to get you into the game, the crowd will help you. The crowd needs reason to cheer; tonight we couldn’t give them a reason to cheer.”

Except perhaps for Butler, who is quietly being mentioned among the elites in the league, a surprisingly quick journey for the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft.

Butler is 15th in the league in scoring at 21.3 per game to lead the Bulls after his 32 (11 of 14 free throws), six rebounds, two steals and a block. His late third quarter steal and dunk helped rally the Bulls from a nine-point deficit earlier in the quarter to within 69-65 after three. But the Pacers, or whoever those guys were, hit the Bulls with a 19-6 start of the fourth behind the Price, who was right and between the eyes with a pair of threes.

“They’re playing how we used to play, next man stepping up,” said Gibson. “That team reminds me of us last year. Same way we beat them they came at us tonight.”

It’s probably not a major concern as Rose should return either Monday or Thursday—though his absence was felt more in a game like Saturday’s when someone was needed to push the ball for easy baskets and speed the pace against a set up team—Gasol never got much going and Butler continues to excel.

“Every year he has gotten better,” enthused Thibodeau of Butler. “This is the next step for him. He’s had his moments in the past. Last year he had an up and down year because of all the injuries. Now he’s healthy. He got in great shape over the summer, he got lighter and I think he understands the league really well. He is strong on both sides of the ball. He scores a lot of different ways. He’s playing as well as anyone on (the Bulls on) both sides of the ball. He’s always had the ability to draw fouls. But he’s doing a lot of other things now, making plays. The second defender comes, he’s hitting the open man. He’s getting us easy baskets, runs the floor hard, can post, can drive, hit spot ups, moves extremely well without the ball and his defense is good as anyone in the league.”

Butler leads the team in scoring and steals, is third in rebounding and second in three point percentage.

Butler showed all of that surpassing his career high of 28 points and one of two on threes on a night the Bulls, who have been shooting better this season, were four of 17 on threes and one of 10 through three quarters.

“I scored the ball, but we didn’t win; that’s all that matters,” said Butler. “Points don’t win you championships. We started off sluggish. We didn’t get enough easy baskets, we weren’t guarding anybody, we weren’t rebounding. It’s kind of hard to get in transition when you don’t get stops. It’s all effort; we’ve got to attack the ball and go get it. Man up and go get the ball.”

Gasol also had a milestone with his 3,000th assist, making him one of six players all time along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan (nice list) with at least 16,000 points, 8,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks. Could Pau be the only one not in the Hall of Fame? Probably not.

Though his most impressive basket was on an assist from Dunleavy for a running slam when the Bulls went on their own little run to tie the game at 57 with about five minutes left in the third quarter. The Bulls had few good moments until then and still were tied. It seemed to be one of those games everyone would be calling ugly with a win as there were a total of two fast break points in the first half, none for the Bulls, and constant checking of programs to see who were those Pacers. But the Bulls never did get much going other than a brief spurt of energy late in the fourth quarter to get within 88-81 on a Hinrich floater with 2:21 left.

But Chris Copeland, who averaged about six minutes per game for the Pacers last season playing in maybe half the games, got a switch and beat Noah off the dribble for a runner and 90-81 lead. Scola then stepped in front of Noah to intercept a pass from Hinrich. The Bulls doubled Copeland—yes, that’s what it was coming to—so he threw across to Hill for a three pointer that pretty much ended it at 93-81 with 1:29 left.

Now it’s out on the road for seven games and 15 days through the Thanksgiving holiday in one of the team’s longest ever road trips. And at least Butler is excited.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” said Butler. “We get to spend a lot of time around each other. Who doesn’t like to play on the road?”

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