Morning Shootaround

Shootaround (Jan. 3) -- Jimmy Butler doing his part to keep Bulls afloat

Butler shines in Bulls’ win | Hornacek blasts Knicks’ defensive effort | Embiid making sure Simmons is included | James’ comments touch Holiday

No. 1: Butler puts on a show in Bulls’ win — Nearly a year to the date, Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler channeled his inner Michael Jordan and delivered a 50-point game last night. It was Jan. 14, 2016 when Butler dropped a career-best 53 points on the Philadelphia 76ers and last night, he came a two points shy of passing that mark. His 52-point effort paced the banged-up Bulls to a much-needed win as they try to keep their playoff hopes alive. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune has more:

Don’t say Dwyane Wade didn’t warn anyone who listened.

Back in training camp, fielding a question about the championship expectations that had greeted the Bulls in every preseason since their unexpected 2011 run to the Eastern Conference finals, Wade got real.

“When you’re coming off a season where you don’t make the playoffs, your goal can’t be winning a championship,” Wade said. “Your goal has to be, day to day, making steps to improve yourself so you can get to a point where you’re a playoff team. I’m not going to put a ceiling on us. But we’re not thinking long term with so many new guys.”

Wade spoke these truths in October, well before the Bulls’ 118-111 victory over the Hornets on Monday night that continued the subtle shift to a youth movement.

But as long as Jimmy Butler keeps painting masterpieces, the Bulls will keep a playoff pulse.

Butler scored a season-high 52 points, his third 40-point outing of the season and one off his career high. He sank a career-high-tying 21 of his season-high 22 free-throw attempts. He shot 9-for-13 in the second half and scored 17 in the fourth quarter, drawing “MVP! MVP!” chants down the stretch.

“That’s a little over my head,” Butler cracked.

“It’s an understatement to say Jimmy was phenomenal,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He did it every which way. I loved his aggressiveness. He made huge plays down the stretch.”

Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic delivered huge defensive plays on consecutive possessions down the stretch — Gibson recording a block and Mirotic a steal — as the Bulls snapped a two-game skid in advance of Wednesday’s game against the Cavaliers.

Even with Wade missing his first game of the season because of an injury, a swollen left knee that isn’t considered serious, Rajon Rondo never left the bench. Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant split point guard duties. And rookie Denzel Valentine backed up Doug McDermott, who started for Wade at shooting guard, until rolling his left ankle in the third quarter.

“I do whatever it takes to try to help this team win,” Butler said.

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No. 2: Hornacek questions Knicks’ defensive ability — The New York Knicks find themselves this morning in the No. 10 spot in the Eastern Conference after the Orlando Magic sent them to their fifth straight defeat last night. Overall, the Knicks have lost eight of their last 10 games, they have the fifth-worst Defensive Rating in the league and are in general in a funk. After last night’s loss, coach Jeff Hornacek openly questioned his team’s ability to defend and hinted at lineup changes, writes Marc Berman of the New York Post:

After arguably their worst loss of the season Monday, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek lowered the boom, delivering his most damning assessment of his team’s defensive woes, admitting perhaps this roster is “not capable’’ of playing better defense.

Ten days ago, the Knicks ripped the Magic at the Garden but that team has gone missing along with its defense, which allowed Orlando to shoot 15-of-31 from the 3-point line.

“I don’t think our guys aren’t trying — maybe they’re not capable,’’ Hornacek said. “I don’t know. That’s what we have to figure out. Maybe play some other guys and mix the lineup somehow.

“We have to find someone to play some defense. You can’t come out at the beginning and their first three baskets are 3s. You have to have better pride than that. … I think they’re trying — they must not be good enough defensively.’’

Hornacek suggested the coaching staff may need to come up with new, tricky schemes to compensate.

“We might figure out ways to trap,’’ Hornacek said. “Coaches are going to have to meet and try to figure it out, defensively, what is going to help us out.’’

Carmelo Anthony appeared taken aback when he heard Hornacek mentioned the club may not be capable of being better on defense.

“I hope he ain’t giving up — what 33 games,’’ Anthony said. “I might as well just pack my stuff now — giving up already.’’

Anthony declined further comment.

“I’d rather talk to Jeff about that — see where he’s coming from,’’ he said.

Hornacek also questioned the team’s toughness, bemoaning the Magic “ripped rebounds’’ out of his players’ hands and said the club may need to “get in the weight room a little more.’’

“They went and took it from us,’’ Hornacek said. “That’s toughness.’’

Orlando racked up 67 first-half points and 92 after three quarters with the Knicks defense inactive as ever. After allowing 21 3s in giving up 129 points to the Rockets on Saturday, the Magic feasted from the 3-point line in the first half alone, making 8-of-11 3-point shots (72.7 percent).

The only excuse is the Knicks played their second straight game without Kristaps Porzingis, nursing a sore Achilles tendon. But the Magic were without swingman stud, Evan Fournier (heel).

After a soft first half, the Knicks’ defense came out for the third quarter and immediately allowed Aaron Gordon to crank an open 3. Gordon had a big second half to finish with 22 as the Knicks fell behind by 17 points in the third quarter.

“Whatever’s messed up can easily be fixed — it’s fixable,’’ Derrick Rose said, countering Hornacek’s remark.

After Orlando point guard Elfrid Payton drove for a high-arcing banked layup with 7:49 left to put Orlando up 16, the Knicks called a timeout and Brandon Jennings threw the ball high in the air. Hornacek looked exasperated on the sidelines all evening.

On the 3-point defense, Hornacek said the club is “not closing out quick enough” and “helping when you shouldn’t, taking chances.’’

“Our guys were scrambling little bit and we just didn’t get out to them,’’ Hornacek said.

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No. 3: Embiid knows how Simmons feels — Few players in the NBA know the tests and trials that come with recovering from injury better than Philadelphia 76ers rookie Joel Embiid. He also knows that with that rehab process comes a feeling of being an outsider with the team, no matter how many games he watched on the bench. As such, Embiid is taking it upon himself to make sure fellow rookie Ben Simmons, who is recovering from a broken foot suffered in the preseason, is a part of the team. Jessica Camerato of has more:

Joel Embiid remembers what it was like being separated from the team while he rehabbed from foot injuries for two years. When New Year’s Eve rolled around, he wanted to make sure Ben Simmons didn’t feel the same way.

Simmons posted an Instagram photo from that night with Embiid, Nik Stauskas, T.J. McConnell and Nerlens Noel. The rookie had remained in Philadelphia while the team was on the Sixers’ nine-day road trip and linked up with them when they returned from Denver. Embiid said the gathering came to be from texting one another.

“That’s something I feel like Ben is going to appreciate a lot because I was in that type of situation,” Embiid said. “When I was by myself I felt kind of left alone and when I had guys around me it just made me feel better.”

Consider it a way of paying it forward. Embiid recalls how much it meant to him when Noel made him feel welcome while he was sidelined.

“Nerlens, when I got to Philly, showed me around,” Embiid said. “At first when I was traveling on the road, I was always with him. You’ve also got the coaches, mainly (assistant director of player development) Chris Babcock, is always texting me, always with me. It was mainly Nerlens, we’ve been close since I got to Philly.”

Like Embiid and Simmons, Noel also was injured through his first year (ACL). Noel was on a more veteran team during the 2013-14 season. Players reached out to make him feel part of the group.

“Those guys were all good guys,” Noel said. “They were a little older than me. We had Thaddeus (Young), he was a great vet to me. E.T.’s (Evan Turner) a funny, funny guy. Guys kept me included.”

“That’s fantastic,” coach Brett Brown said after taking a look at the post. “I really like stuff like that. You know how important is it to all of us to grow a continuity, a family. When you have people in and out, in and out, and people’s future are uncertain, words end up cheap.

“To grow that type of thing off the floor is the holy grail. You combine that work they’re doing on the floor with stuff where they interact and coexist, it’s not the be all or end all, but it certainly helps. That stuff is very pleasing to me.”

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No. 4: Pelicans’ Holiday touched by LeBron’s gesture — New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday missed his team’s first dozen games of 2016-17 to tend to his wife, who had brain surgery in October to remove a benign brain tumor. Holiday and the Pelicans visited the Cleveland Cavaliers last night and as the game got underway, Cavs star LeBron James made a point to encourage Holiday mid-game. Dave McMenamin of has more:

In the brief moments after the Cavaliers and Pelicans took the floor Monday night and before their game tipped off, LeBron James approached Jrue Holiday to offer him words of encouragement and tap him on the chest, acknowledging the point guard’s off-court struggles.

Holiday’s wife, former U.S. women’s national soccer team player Lauren Holiday, underwent brain surgery in October to have a benign tumor removed. Just weeks prior to the procedure, she gave birth to the couple’s first child, Jrue Tyler Holiday, a daughter. Jrue Holiday took a leave of absence from the Pelicans to be with his family at the time.

Following the Cavs’ 90-82 win over the Pelicans, Holiday told ESPN that he didn’t have much of a prior relationship with James — “just in passing” — and that he was touched by the gesture.

“When we heard about it, me and my family and my wife heard about it, we were in L.A. at the time in the offseason and we automatically had a prayer for her,” James told ESPN of Holiday’s situation. “This is a brotherhood, no matter if you’re on the same team or not, this is a fraternity. Our league is a fraternity. Any time someone’s family is going through a situation like that, you just hope the greater God above is looking out for him. So, I couldn’t wait to actually see him today.”

“Obviously to him, family means more than anything,” Holiday told ESPN. “And the same thing for me. So, the fact that they’ve been praying and supporting my wife is a blessing to me.

“To know that this league and somebody of his caliber and the effect that he has on the game like he does can really have support for my family is awesome.”

He said greetings like he got from James have become commonplace.

“I’ve gotten it probably every game — whether it’s from referees or from players, I’ve gotten it every game,” Holiday said. “I guess for our league to acknowledge that and for it to feel like a brotherhood, that’s really what it feels like.”

James said it was important to put the competition aside momentarily to show Holiday he cared.

“Once the ball is tipped, you’re going to go out and compete and try to help our teams win, but listen, at the end of the day, family comes before anything,” James said. “And to know what he was going through with his wife and having to have a leave of absence because of that, that’s bigger than anything. So, it was a no-brainer.”

Now back with the Pelicans for nearly six weeks, Holiday said it’s not just New Orleans’ on-court product that is improving.

“I guess it’s been going well and it hasn’t been affecting me, I don’t think,” said Holiday, who went into Monday averaging 14.6 points, 7.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. “My wife is doing really well and she’s gradually getting better, and that’s all I can ask for. She’s alive, and I’m blessed for that. My daughter is OK. So, I’m happy.

“I’m doing well. My wife is a lot better so I’m doing a lot better.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Russell Westbrook angered a good portion of Wisconsin last night after he did the Aaron Rodgers “Discount Double-Check” celebration vs. the Bucks … With their win last night against the Denver Nuggets, the Golden State Warriors became the first NBA franchise to win 30 of their first 35 games in three straight seasons … Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love has lost 10 pounds over the last few days due to food poisoning … A closer look at how the Houston Rockets went 15-2 in December … San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gave the tie he wore to Craig Sager’s funeral to his son, Craig Sager Jr. … Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks is campaigning for Rudy Tomjanovich to be in the Hall of Fame …