Jimmy Butler likes long showers; he merited one Monday after the Bulls 118-111 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
So Jimmy lathered away, or whatever he does in there, and the reporters, camera crews, radio and TV hosts gathered in wide and extending arcs around Butler’s stall in the Bulls locker room. It was growing, rings five, six, seven deep when George Koehler walked in and laughed. “That’s a familiar sight,” said Koehler.
George is the famous driver who in 1984 was at O’Hare Airport when the Bulls forgot to pick up their No. 1 draft pick, Michael Jordan. Heck, they weren’t really sure how good he was going to be, anyway. George knew who he was; his fare never showed. So he offered Michael a ride for $25. Michael agreed, gave him $50, and in the last three decades has become one of Jordan’s closest friends and confidantes, with Jordan after so many of those game saving 50 and 60-some scoring nights. So George, back in the United Center with Jordan’s Hornets, could only smile when he went into the Bulls locker room to congratulate Butler.
Yes, seen that scene and that game before, 52 points for Butler, including 17 in the fourth quarter and 32 in the second half, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, 21 of 22 from the free throw line, and just about everything necessary to rally the Bulls over Charlotte and break a brutal losing stretch of eight of the last 11.
What did Butler think of the fans’ “MVP, MVP” chants late in the game as he scored 16 of the last 20 Bulls points after Charlotte held a 100-97 lead with six minutes remaining in the game.
“That’s a little bit over my head,” said Butler. “We have to win a lot of games for that.”
Well, it was a start as the Bulls moved up to 17-18 against a tough Charlotte team that is now 19-16. The Bulls inched back into the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a bit of brightness in what had been a dark period of late as the Bulls tied a season high in scoring and had season highs for a quarter and half.
“Put the ball in the basket a little bit,” agreed a fatigued Butler. “Fifty-two points. Obviously, I’m just excited we won; big win at home. They’re in front of us in the race right now. We need to start stringing together some (wins).”
A victory gives a team some hope, and perhaps the fast break into 2017 leaves some gloom behind.
“Just telling everybody we have enough to win and everybody just has to put more into it,” said Taj Gibson, who had a big block on Spencer Hawes with 1:21 and the Bulls leading 109-106, one of several crucial defensive plays late that saved Butler’s brilliant offensive game. “It’s a new year; come in and put more into it. Don’t listen to what the media is saying. It’s tough playing in Chicago; we know that. The media is tough. A lot of people are looking for us to self explode. Try to stay the course; we still have time. Keep doing your job, everyone put more into what you can do to help your team and good things will keep happening. Nobody is going to dig us out of this hole; we have to dig ourselves out.”
The Bulls got 11 points from Doug McDermott, starting with Dwyane Wade out with knee swelling after playing back to back. Michael Carter-Williams, starting again for Rajon Rondo, had 10 points and nine rebounds and a wonderful late save of a loose ball, again one of several hustle plays he made. Nikola Mirotic added 12 points off the bench, and he contributed a crucial steal with the Bulls also leading 109-106, swiping a Nicholas Batum pass to a cutting Hawes, a play Charlotte previously had scored on several times. But coach Fred Hoiberg, Gibson said, changed some important defensive coverages late and it seemed to catch the Hornets by surprise. Hoiberg also played Gibson at center down the stretch and thus they were able to blitz and thwart the Walker pick and rolls more effectively.
“We just followed the play calls,” said Gibson.
The Bulls also got nine points and three of five threes from Denzel Valentine and nine points from Jerian Grant, the Bulls reserves with 34 points and nice movement and aggressiveness playing together without any starter with Wade out. Hoiberg is dipping into the team’s youth in place of Rondo, which raised some eyebrows, Spock-like even, and questions. Hoiberg reiterated Rondo has remained positive and the rotation could change. But, at least for now, with the energetic production of players like Carter-Williams, Grant and Valentine, they’ll likely remain in the rotation.
“We really responded to coach Hoiberg’s message about starting off the new year right,” said McDermott, who was second to Butler in plus/minus rating. “Letting everything get behind us and move forward. We have a tough one against Cleveland (Wednesday), but we are going to keep working. It’s kind of been a messed up year in a way. But it’s time to move on and focus on the next one.”
So it was an evening to enjoy, undefeated in 2017 and all that.
The Bulls did show promise in ball movement, hustle and enthusiasm. One issue coming into the season was Butler, Wade and Rondo are regarded as talents who, however, liked to possess the ball a bit too much. Could they coexist? They did for a month, but with the descent in December, it was time for a shakeup. Hoiberg tried it earlier in the month, sitting Mirotic two games. And now Rondo. It also seems likely with Wade faltering after the back to back again, his playing schedule will be adjusted as the Bulls have another three in four nights this weekend. And then a pair of back to backs later this month.
The Bulls, of course, need Wade, and they may still need Rondo.
After all, Butler’s 52 points, his second game of at least 50 in his career, made him just the second player in franchise history with more than one game of at least 50 points. Jordan has 39 such games, six of at least 60. So Butler isn’t quite there yet; just as he says, appropriately enough, with the Bulls record he’s not quite a serious MVP candidate.
But there was no one close to as valuable in this game, or for the Bulls in the last week since Butler had 40 points in the previous game the Bulls won, last week against Brooklyn. By the way, Butler scored 52 points and was one of four on three pointers. OK, Westbrook and Harden, try that.
It was Jimmy vs Charlotte in the last four minutes starting with a Carter-Williams rebound on a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist miss that Butler took just about full court for a layup and three-point play to tie the game. He’s not LeBron, but Butler physically might be the second toughest to stop once he gets going like that. Charlotte is a well coached team that moves the ball adroitly. Kidd-Gilchrist cutting got a Marvin Williams pass for a dunk to make it 102-100 Charlotte with 3:43 left.
Hornets assistant Patrick Ewing then drew a technical foul for offering his view of the officiating, one of two technical fouls in the last four minutes on Hornets coaches. Though Charlotte coach Steve Clifford ripped his eighth ranked team’s defense in a post game rant that came after he did some furniture rearranging in the coach’s locker room, or so it sounded from outside.
Butler then picked up his own miss bouncing on the floor and put it back for a 103-102 Bulls lead with 3:18 left.
The way things had gone lately for the Bulls, this looked like another defeat. But Jimmy wasn’t going along with that result this time.
Williams scored on a sharp pocket pass from Kemba Walker to make it 104-103 Charlotte. There would be a dozen lead changes and 11 ties in a game the Bulls led 58-57 at halftime and trailed 85-82 after three. It was a fun one. Carter-Williams then took a pass from Butler and drove in from the left wing for a floater, Butler pretty much running the offense by now, most of which was for him. It was 105-104 Bulls with 2:22 left.
“That was part of the plan coming out, be aggressive, get to the rim, shoot the shot when you are open, see if you have a rhythm going,” said Butler. “I was passing the ball a lot early. I think late I stopped passing the ball, which is probably a bad thing. But I thought that was the goal, be aggressive from start to finish.”
Kidd-Gilchrist beat McDermott baseline. But Gibson was there to cut him off and the Bulls rebounded the miss. Butler dribbled up slowly, then faked going over the Carter-Williams screen and accelerated, beating Nicholas Batum and then Spencer Hawes at the rim for a 107-104 Bulls lead with 1:58 left.
“I was just playing basketball,” said Butler. “I didn’t even know how many points I had until (shooting) the tech (with 15 seconds left). Michael was like, ‘Get 50.’ I just got in a groove and the coaches kept drawing up the same play and Mike kept setting great screens and I just made the shots.”
Timeout Charlotte. But the Hornets still would not try to take the ball out of Butler’s hands with double teams. It was a curious strategy.
The Hornets run excellent out of bounds plays. They got Walker on Mirotic on a switch and Walker scored. He had 34 pointsand Batum 19: 107-106 Bulls with 1:52 left.
Jimmy set up on the right wing against Batum, no help coming and raised up into a 21 footer good for a 109-106 Bulls lead with 1:39 left. Then came the defensive sequence that saved Butler’s gem.
Jeremy Lamb got down the lane and passed to Hawes, whose layup attempt was blocked by Gibson helping on the drive and recovering.
“We’ve been criticized a lot for the lack of movement, the lack of guys screening and getting open,” said Gibson. “Tonight everyone did the small things that helped the team get the win. A lot of the problems were on the defensive side; we miss shots and feel bad for ourselves and we let down on defensive coverages. Tonight we played on both ends and everyone contributed; but the main thing was we didn’t let shots deter us from our defense. Every time we missed a shot we got back on defense; it showed tonight.”
Butler took the ball up court and passed to McDermott cutting back door from the left side. His reverse was blocked. Carter-Williams grabbed it away from Hawes as he fell and passed to Gibson. But his shot was stripped away by Walker to the Hornets. Hoiberg stayed with Butler, Carter-Williams, Gibson, McDermott and Mirotic, a better unit for spacing on offense and movement on defense. The Hornets tried that same play of Hawes rolling off a screen. But Mirotic came from the weak side for the steal after Hawes sealed Butler from the ball.
“We guarded late down the stretch,” said Butler. “It looks good when we are guarding; then everything is clicking on both ends of the floor. We’re all doing what we are supposed to be doing, it looks like some great basketball.”
Butler carried the ball up again, holding the ball on top to run down the clock after Mirotic’s steal with 50.8 seconds. Batum faced up on Butler, but no one came to help. Butler went to the same spot on the right wing and again rose up over Batum for now a 22 footer and, yes, good for a 111-106 Bulls lead with 32.3 seconds left. That was 47 for Butler with Butler pumping his arms in delight.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to score a few points here and there, I think,” said Butler. “That’s the reason why this team wins sometimes, but if I’m not making shots I know somebody else could easily had 50 on this team.”
Maybe that’s what Clifford thought.
Batum drove past Butler, but Gibson was there again to force up a wild runner that Butler rebounded. With 23.3 seconds left, the Hornets started fouling intentionally. Butler made both free throws for the 113-106 lead. Walker made a quick three, and the Hornets fouled Carter-Williams. Hey, Jimmy had 49. Why was Carter-Williams getting the inbounds? But Batum was all over him.
As Carter-Williams shot free throws, Clifford was called for a technical foul. Butler took the ball. Carter-Williams patted him on he head and told him to get his 50th, and Butler laughed and did. There were many MVP chants from the fans.
Carter-Williams added his second free throw for a 116-109 Bulls lead. Walker drove and scored, but with the Bulls leading 116-111 with under 10 seconds left nothing much more was happening. Except two more Butler free throws.
Lots of love for this night. George Koehler has seen that before for another great Bull.