“It’s confidence for me (now),” said Butler. “I’m in a rhythm. My teammates are giving me the ball in great position. But that’s what the summer was, to be confident in your game. You’re here for a reason. I’m happy we’re winning. It doesn’t get too much better than this.”
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Bulls finish strong to deny Magic

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By Sam Smith | 11.05.2014 | 2:06 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

Jimmy Butler was starting to get noticed last season, being named all-defensive second team and averaging 13.3 per game in the playoffs, 14.5 per game in the 20 games he started. But there was room for improvement, far still to go. So Butler went back home to Texas after the season and went to school.

He’s come back to the Bulls this season with a master’s degree, a master of the mid-range game.

It was on display Tuesday as with Derrick Rose out with a sprained ankle and Joakim Noah ill, Butler scored 21 points along with nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks to help lead the Bulls to a 98-90 victory over the Orlando Magic.

There were highlights all around with the Bulls going to 3-1 against the winless Magic by pulling away from a two-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining with a brilliant defensive stand and 9-0 run over three minutes that enabled the Bulls to hold off Orlando the rest of the way.

– Pau Gasol with Noah out and Taj Gibson in foul trouble had 16 points and 13 rebounds in playing 41 minutes. “You have to be prepared physically and mentally to face different circumstances where you will play a little longer, a little harder,” said Gasol. “That’s what this league is about. That’s the difference in playing at a high level and an OK level. You never know what will happen in a season. In my career, I’ve played a lot of minutes. I averaged 35, 36 minutes a game, so that means I play a lot.”

– Aaron Brooks with another superb reserve contribution with 13 points, a game-high eight assists and the crucial defensive play of the game when he blocked a shot by seven-footer Nikola Vucevic with 3:09 remaining and the Magic pulling within 89-86. Brooks then made a three on a pass out from Gasol and Orlando never got closer. It was one of three blocks Brooks had in the fourth quarter. “Three blocks is pretty impressive. I was happy (Aaron) was able to get in there and get after it and be aggressive. I don’t think he’s ever going to get three blocks again,” joked Gasol. “But you’ve got to give him props and he played a great game all around.” Shrugged Brooks: “Just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

– Doug McDermott with 12 points, all in the second quarter when the Bulls came back from an eight-point first quarter deficit. And Nikola Mirotic with eight points, all in the fourth quarter, including a pair of fourth quarter three pointers during the Bulls’ run to reclaim the lead and some deft passing on the drive with four assists and six rebounds. Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whom no one should ever again say doesn’t like rookies: “I keep saying it over and over about he and Doug; I love them both. You can’t do any more than they are doing. The thing that is great about them is they come in every day with a ton of energy and ready to concentrate and work and prepare themselves to play. When you couple that with their talent, good things will happen for them. They are still rookies with a lot to learn. If they have a good game, they’re eager to come in and do it again. If they have a tough game, they want to learn. Rarely do they make the same mistake twice; they are aggressive, they are attacking. I can’t say enough about them. It’s unusual to have rookies like that. They bring great energy to our practices. And they can play. Usually you like rookies a lot better when they can play.”

Gibson added 16 points despite his foul problems along with two blocks among the Bulls’ nine as the Bulls lead the league in blocks.

But it was once again the crucial scoring of Butler’s, especially getting to the free throw line with his power from the mid post that has been striking. In his two games back from his thumb injury, Butler has led the Bulls in scoring each time and has a whopping 26 free throw attempts in the two games. His strength, quickness and footwork remind you of, well, it just seems suddenly familiar.

“I’m not saying I am him, but I watched a lot of film this summer on Mike (Jordan) and Kobe (Bryant) and their footwork and how they play right there (in the mid-post),” said Butler. “It’s where I want to get to. I still have a long way to go, don’t get me wrong, to get to their level. But it’s a good start. It’s what I tried to work the most on this summer, the mid-post.

“It’s confidence for me (now),” said Butler. “I’m in a rhythm. My teammates are giving me the ball in great position. But that’s what the summer was, to be confident in your game. You’re here for a reason. I’m happy we’re winning. It doesn’t get too much better than this.”

And it doesn’t get that much better than Butler has been playing with strength, confidence and aggression. He identified mismatches quickly, and though he’s not a knockdown shooter as yet, his shot looks much improved and he’s stepping into it with confidence. One difference, said Butler, is he realized he needed to lose some weight. He feels strong, but quicker.

“I’m lighter,” said Butler. “I felt like I was heavier last year. I thought it was OK. But it was a lot of wear and tear on the joints and knees. I feel great now and moving well. Keep getting to the line being aggressive and maybe next time I’ll make them.”

Butler was only seven of 11 from the free throw line Tuesday after 11 of 15 in Minnesota Saturday. But indicative of the player he is becoming—and looking like an All-Star candidate—Butler is only thinking about the work.

“Tomorrow I’m going to the Marquette gym and shoot 500 free throws,” Butler said with the Bulls visiting the Bucks with no practice scheduled. “Make sure I don’t miss anymore.”

The Bulls haven’t been missing much this season except, well, unless you consider their star point guard.

Rose sat out his second consecutive game after spraining his ankle last week against the Cavaliers. Rose worked out before the game, but was declared out moments before the start. Thibodeau said the ankle wasn’t fully healed and had nothing to do with the start of a four games in five nights stretch.

“We’ll see where he is tomorrow,” Thibodeau said about Rose. “This is all part of it; we’ll be fine.”

Asked whether it’s extra caution, Thibodeau expressed exasperation, saying: “He sprained his ankle. When he’s ready to go, he’ll go. Jo’s sick. Hopefully he’ll be better tomorrow. He was pretty sick today. Hopefully we’ll have them both.”

Earlier Tuesday after the team practice, Rose indicated he wasn’t able to push off quite right. Given Rose’s well known injury history, the team is urging caution this season.

“If I could get to a spot, I could play,” said Rose. “Just having that burst of speed. If not, there’s no need. If I’m not out there and I’m not 100 percent or if I can’t play the way that I normally play, there’s no point in me being out there right now. It is [frustrating], but there’s nothing I can do about it. I came down on somebody’s foot. It’s a basketball injury, so I just got to get used to it. I think it’s part of the process. I tried to walk it off (continuing to play another quarter), Me walking it off and playing through it probably made it a little bit worse, but I was too caught up in the game and in the fourth quarter it caught up to me.”

But Butler, who had six points in the fourth quarter including a lob dunk on a Kirk Hinrich inbounds pass to give the Bulls a 94-86 lead with 2:13 left, said Rose did help with some fourth quarter inspiration.

“Derrick came up to me in the fourth quarter and said, ‘Win this game for us,’” related Butler. “You know how much confidence that builds when you have your MVP, your leader telling you to win the game. It shows the faith they have in me; that’s big. We want our guys back, but until then we have to win games.”

It wasn’t clear whether the Bulls could win during a back and forth game the Bulls led 54-52 at halftime and were tied at 69 going into the fourth quarter.

The Magic was led by Tobias Harris with 21 points and Vucevic with 19 points and 13 rebounds, though the Bulls closed them down late with brilliant defensive play.

“We are shooting so much better,” said Thibodeau as the Bulls were seven of 15 on threes and in the top 10 in the league in field goal percentage. “That is a big plus for the team. When you add a guy like Pau to the lineup with everything that he does, that is winning basketball. He had that huge play (when) we dumped the ball into him. He got really good position, forced the help, kicked it out and Aaron made the big three. That’s winning basketball.”

It was an uneven start for the Bulls as Orlando led 16-8; the defense was slow to react again early, though that would change. Gasol got going late in the first to get within 28-24, though the Magic was hitting at 57.1 percent. The second quarter saw McDermott’s best run of the season as he started with a three with the Bulls trailing 33-26, got a shot blocked but came back with strong drive from the top and layup, a slice cut and dunk on a nifty pass from Mirotic and then another from Brooks that led to a three-point play. Then Butler took over, backing in former Bull Ben Gordon as soon as he made the switch onto him twice and then closing the quarter with a runner after a Kirk Hinrich behind the back dribble and pass.

Both teams bumbled to start the second half and set up the final quarter for the game. The Bulls took it away with one terrific defensive play after another: Brooks strip, Gibson block, Hinrich with a steal, Brooks with a block, Gibson another block. While that was going on, Gibson went up strong on a pass from Hinrich, Tony Snell had a driving layup, Hinrich scored on a drive, Mirotic made a three on a Gibson pass and added another in a two-man game with Brooks. It also was the little things, like Hinrich getting caught inside on a switch guarding Vucevic. But Hinrich fought so hard fronting Vucevic that Orlando couldn’t get the pass in and passed around the other side for a miss.

“You can’t say enough about what Hinrich does for our team,” said Thibodeau.

Orlando did fight back with rookie Elfrid Payton on a drive and Vucevic getting deep position on Gasol, which was an issue all game.

But then as Orlando nudged within 89-86 with 3:09 left after a Harris 18 footer and Butler miss, Brooks made the defensive play of the game sliding in from the weak side to help with Vucevic about to score again. The barely six-foot Brooks blocked the seven footer as he tried to come up with the ball.

“I happened to be in the wrong place,” Brooks said with a laugh, “but I made the right play.”

The Bulls then found Gasol deep and as the Magic defense sank in, Gasol passed out for Brooks’ three to make it 92-86. It would prove enough points for the win.

“Aaron, his defense today was his best game, ball pressure, challenging shots, multiple effort, getting into the post,” said Thibodeau. “We want him to play both sides of the ball. He’s capable. He’s a tough guy. You can see it. He’s not afraid to get in there and mix it up with everybody; he’s capable of playing great defense. He’s a big shot maker, he’s clever, has all the tricks. If you’re a guard that size you have to figure how you are going to get the shot over the bigs. He does with great touch and accuracy. Tonight his shot wasn’t there early on; he made plays, seven assists in the first half. He’s a high IQ guy; he knows the strengths and weaknesses of every guy he’s playing and that’s critical.

“Jimmy Butler,” added Thibodeau, “is playing great basketball. He’s making big shots, guarding everyone, getting to the free throw line; game’s on the line making big plays for us. It was a really good team win.”

There is no Next, a book by Sam Smith