“Jimmy Butler, what can you say,” swooned Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau again. “When that game was on the line he made big play after big play. He’s playing great basketball.”
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Bulls race away from Clippers

Bulls improve to 8-3, 6-0 on the road with 105-89 victory in Los Angeles

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Why can’t Jimmy Butler be the MVP of the league?

No, he didn’t say it, and, in fact, the Bulls leading scorer Monday went to great lengths after the Bulls impressive comeback 105-89 win over the Clippers to deny he’s even one of the team’s go to scorers.

“I don’t think I’m a scorer,” said Butler, who led six Bulls in double figures—even with Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol out injured—with 22 points, eight rebounds, six assists and six points late in the fourth quarter when the Clippers were making a last, desperate rally.

Having led by 19 points after trailing earlier by 14 in a game with eight ties and 11 lead changes, the Clippers cut that 19-point fourth quarter Bulls lead to eight with about five minutes left: Jimmy time.

Taj Gibson got a slam dunk when the Clippers doubled Butler in the post. Then Gibson with 20 points and six assists starting for Gasol passed over the top to Butler posting up. He was fouled, making one of two of his nine of 10 at the free throw line. On the next possession, Butler muscled Jamal Crawford aside for a three-point play for a 95-85 Bulls lead with 3:40 left to stop the Clippers surge. Mike Dunleavy with 19 points closed it with a pair of threes off passes from Gibson.

“I think my teammates find me in positions to score,” said Butler. “I wouldn’t say I’m a go to guy; I would say I’m really good at the role I’m supposed to play.”

Which has become, well, go to guy.

“Jimmy Butler, what can you say,” swooned Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau again. “When that game was on the line he made big play after big play. He’s playing great basketball.”

One of the truly great stories of the 2014-15 NBA season has been the play of Butler, an amazing jump from not only a player drafted No. 30 overall, but a reluctant offensive player his entire time with the Bulls, a shooting guard who seemed out of place given questions of how much he could even score.

But Butler leads the Bulls in scoring at 21.3 per game, 14th in the NBA and easily the lowest draft pick in the top 20 scorers. Butler also is averaging 6.2 rebounds, fourth among guards in rebounding and shooting 50.8 percent, third among guards in shooting. Butler also is averaging eight free throw attempts per game, the most on the Bulls with his rugged post game that dominated the Clippers.

And for a Bulls team now 8-3 and a league best 6-0 on the road, the only undefeated road team in the league. There are not too many more valuable players. Perhaps it’s unrealistic and just hyperbole to suggest such honors. But no one in the league has come so far so fast to do so much.

“Tom has always told me to look to score more and be more aggressive,” said Butler. “I think it all started on defense for me. I was more aggressive on defense; then slowly but surely I became more aggressive on offense. I have to give all credit to my teammates because without them I would not be the player I am. I am trying to just be aggressive, get in there, draw some contact while still trying to make the shot. But whenever I get the ball and I am driving, I want to look for other guys that are open on the wing first. If they are not open, then try to score or get fouled.

“Confidence,” said Butler in his development. “This summer I did work, but I’m very confident in my game this year. I think it shows. I let my teammates know, my coaches (that) I’m very, very comfortable. My teammates are really on my side now, which sure helps.

“It’s overachieving,” Butler said about a familiar backs to the wall without starters script for this Bulls team Monday. “What have we got to lose? We’re not supposed to win with our backs against the wall. Then people see, ‘Damn, they can play a little bit without two of their best players.’”

The Bulls did that Monday as impressively as they had all season, scoring 105 points without two of their top three scorers, outrebounding the Clippers of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, 28 assists on 39 baskets and just nine turnovers and four three pointers each from Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich.

But perhaps what stood out was the combination of toughness with Hinrich and Butler frustrating Chris Paul into just 12 points and seven assists, Dunleavy taking advantage of mismatches with veteran savvy to become something of a point forward initiating plays and Joakim Noah back in his familiar and favorite role as playmaking center with 11 points, 16 rebounds and six assists.

“I thought Joakim was terrific,” said Thibodeau. “I thought it was his best game of the season; he’s been coming real fast. He’s a unique player. It’s his energy. They are winning plays, three and four efforts; it’s hard to explain. Gets a finger nail on the ball, hits the floor, gets a tip, makes a great pass. When a guy does those things that does nothing but unites and inspires your team. The last three or four games really coming on. He’s got that bounce back.”

Perhaps it also was no coincidence Noah was his most emotional of the season, waving towels on the bench, shouting defensive instructions to teammates, inciting the home crowd, yelling at Clippers players, calming teammates like Hinrich after confrontations and throwing himself into the breech with the board banging Clippers.

“It was a good win for us,” agreed Noah. “Just came in with the right mentality and it shows when you come focused to a basketball game. I think the team with the better edge tonight won. It feels great to be able to win against a good team like that.

“It shows they probably thought it would be an easy game because Pau was out, Derrick out,” said Noah. “Obviously, mentally you exhale a little bit. We just wanted to compete. The same thing happened to us in our last game against Indiana. We didn’t come with the right mindset. Usually the team that competes the hardest has the best chance of winning the game.”

It clearly was the Bulls in perhaps their best win of the season: Top Western Conference opponent, short handed, coming off their poorest game of the season and starting two weeks on the road.

The Bulls didn’t get much going early as Blake Griffin was making jump shots, which isn’t going to get you beat. But there were signs like a Gibson block on Griffin and Hinrich in full pester mode running back door cuts on Paul and chasing him off his shots with rugged play. The Bulls led 21-18 after one.

“Kirk, he’s as good a competitor as you’ll find in this league,” said Thibodeau. “Doesn’t take a possession off. He plays for the team; team first guy.”

Still, it looked desperate for the Bulls when the Clippers, who had a recent history of pummeling the Bulls with their athletic play, got a run from Paul to take a 46-32 lead late in the second quarter. But the game began to change when Dunleavy returned. The Clippers appear to be a fatally flawed team at the wing positions with Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick. The Clippers try to “hide” Redick who they think is the weakest defensive player. But Dunleavy repeatedly beat Redick, forcing extra help, which then enabled him to find Noah or Gibson, who then made the assist pass. Then came the turning point plays as Butler and Gibson had steals in the last 30 seconds that led to scores and enabled the Bulls suddenly to trail just 50-48 at halftime.

“I thought that the way we ended right before halftime is what changed the game,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “It gave them hope, and they felt like they had a shot to win the game. After the half, Chicago was the tougher team.”

It came in an impressive third quarter in which the Bulls skills, emotions, commitment and unselfish play were on display. Hinrich would make three three pointers on the way to 14 points, five assists and three steals. Noah dived on the floor to get the ball away from Griffin; Noah was up waving a towel on the bench on a Nikola Mirotic up and under move for a score as Mirotic had 12 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Mirotic also inbounded for a Gibson dunk as the Clippers began to retreat. Thibodeau also made a nice defensive adjustment, switching Noah onto DeAndre Jordan and allowing Gibson to chase outside more against the more active Griffin.

“These are our key plays (Taj and Jimmy),” said Noah. “We are not going to be able to do anything special without those guys. Just got to keep everybody healthy. Taj is probably the most selfless player in the NBA; I think everybody knows that. A guy who is depended on all the time and never gets the credit he deserves. I appreciate everything he does. We can’t get to where we want to get to without Taj.”

Mirotic followed that inbounds assist with a cross court pass for a Dunleavy three, Gibson ripped a Butler miss away from Griffin and went up and scored. Hinrich was in a frenzy against Paul and drew a technical foul. The Bulls had nine assists on 12 scores in a 31-14 third quarter that gave them a 79-64 lead going into the fourth quarter.

“They just trusted each other and trusted their offense,” observed Griffin. “You could see with the way they were moving the ball; they were having fun. That is where we need to be.”

The Bulls then opened up the big lead and didn’t allow the Clippers to get too close because they had Butler.

“The testament was to Jimmy,” said Gibson. “He really took over the game late. We were going to him, isoing him. He’s become one of those go to players we are going to. Jimmy’s focused and he’s having a big year. The sky is the limit for him.”

So, maybe, why not?

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