Here they come in the NBA spinning out of the turn into the homestretch of the regular season. And look who’s coming up on the outside, the Bulls and Jimmy Butler.
Just as the Bulls, having won four straight games, are in New York Tuesday to play the Knicks, the league office in New York Monday announced its Player of the Week honor for Butler.
It is the third time this season Butler has been named NBA Player of the Week. It previously was Nov. 21 and Jan. 9.
And as the Bulls make their own unlikely playoff run, Butler is starting to appear over the shoulder of the MVP leaders like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after the Sunday win in New Orleans that Butler should be in the MVP conversation. “The MVP is what your team is (with and) without him and obviously look at our numbers. When Jimmy is on the floor, we’re really good and he makes other guys better. That’s the thing this year. When you put the ball in his hands as much as we have, not only to create for himself but he’s making the right plays to get the ball to other guys and setting them up for easy shots. Whether it’s Robin (Lopez) at the rim, whether it’s Denzel (Valentine) in the corner. He’s making good simple plays and continues to grow his game. His durability is something you marvel at.”
Said Butler: “I’m dialed in. I think I’m rolling.”
It’s no coincidence the Bulls are rolling, too, six wins in the last eight games as well. The Bulls, 38-39, with five games left, all against teams with losing records, are in sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They are a game ahead of both Miami and Indiana. Plus, the Bulls own the important tiebreaker by virtue of head to head games.
Time for magic numbers?
So, in effect, the Bulls hold a two-game lead over each because a season record tie would go to the Bulls.
That makes it a magic number of four Bulls wins or Indiana and Miami losses for the playoffs. The Bulls finish with the Knicks, 76ers, Brooklyn twice and New Orleans.
The Bulls also could move up in the standings, though it seems less likely. The Hawks in sixth are one game ahead of the Bulls, but Atlanta has the tiebreaker. Milwaukee is two ahead with the tiebreaker. Suddenly, there’s also first round matchups to consider, though the Bulls are in solid one-game-at-a-time, only-worried-about-us mode.
Boston is in first by a half game over Cleveland. Cleveland has played one fewer game. The Cavs have the tiebreaker. Toronto is a game ahead of the Wizards for third in the Eastern Conference. Of course, the Bulls were recently blown out at home by the 76ers and have a losing record against the Knicks. Though that was when Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were playing. Noah is suspended for a substance violation and Rose will have knee surgery for another meniscus tear. Carmelo Anthony has been out with back problems. The Bulls also play Orlando next week and lost badly to them last month.
But that was Jimmy then, Butler coming out of All-Star break without the spirit and physical dominance he displayed in being voted a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
But with Dwyane Wade’s season ending elbow injury against Memphis March 15, Butler has emerged again as one of the top players in the NBA.
Like the Bulls being too late to make a run at the top four teams in the conference, it’s probably too late for Butler to make a serious MVP run. The MVP voting order is expected to be Harden and Westbrook one/two in some order, and then Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James in some order and then for the fifth spot likely Isaiah Thomas or John Wall. But Butler could nose his way into that debate the way he’s played lately.
The NBA week starts on Monday, so the NBA credited Butler with a team 3-0 week, Butler averaging 32.5 points and six assists in the wins over the Cavaliers, Hawks and Pelicans. The Bulls current streak extends to four with a win over Milwaukee the Sunday before the Cavs game. In those four games, Butler is averaging 29.3 points, eight assists and 5.8 rebounds. Plus, he’s seven of eight on three pointers in that stretch.
Butler, obviously, is having a career year. He is averaging a career high 23.9 points along with 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists. The rebound and assist averages are second on the team. He’s also averaging career highs in steals, free throw shooting and free throw attempts.
But it’s his play since Wade’s injury that has resurrected the Bulls.
The Bulls are 6-3 in Wade’s absence and playing seemingly their best ball of the season and averaging almost 109 points per game.
In those nine games, Butler is averaging 28.6 points, 8.1 assists and six rebounds. Plus, he’s a stunning 12 of 20 on threes for 60 percent along with almost 10 free throw attempts per game. He’s also putting in overtime, averaging 39.4 minutes per game with three games more than 40 minutes.
Yet, even as Butler was facing a back to back games starting Saturday against Atlanta, he declined Hoiberg’s request to come out of the game. He played the entire second half and had the Bulls last nine points and the winning free throws in the two-point victory.
After that win over the Hawks, who had defeated the Bulls seven straight. Hoiberg said of Butler: “He’s making the right plays, making simple plays. When the double team came, he made the right kick to the backside. He just found a way to get to the basket, 10 free throws, made them all. Obviously it was a huge part of the win.”
The 6-7 forward in his sixth season has been a huge part of everything that has been going right for the Bulls lately, defending the opponent’s best player, which included a suffocating job on James Thursday when James had just seven points after halftime.
“I see guys doing what they are supposed to be doing out there, playing hard,” said Butler after the Atlanta win. “Shooting the ball when they are open, not trying to do too much. That’s what we need, everybody confident in their game in these last how many we have. Moving forward we want everyone doing what they are supposed to be doing. Home and away we want to win.”
Butler is helping assure that as the Bulls near the finish line.