Butler gains confidence, earns trust with fourth-quarter stint

935449.png

Butler gains confidence, earns trust with fourth-quarter stint

For second-year Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler, Tuesday's home win over Orlando was a watershed moment in his young NBA career. No, he didn't put up huge numbers or make a highlight-reel play--though he, along with fellow reserves Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson, are the most likely players on the team's roster to do that--but he played the entire fourth quarter of the close-knit affair, showing that he's taken a major step in earning Tom Thibodeau's trust as a key rotation player.

"He did a great job for us," the Bulls head coach said after Wednesday's practice at the Berto Center. "He's been playing better and better, stays ready and he can guard multiple positions. He plays hard all the time."

Butler is virtually the prototype of what every coach wants a young player to be--hungry for minutes, but doesn't complain, understands his role, competes on both ends when he's on the floor, possesses a strong work ethic--but mainly playing behind All-Star small forward Luol Deng, playing time can be hard to come by. That's why he understands that his performance against the Magic was significant for his immediate future, as well as that of the team as a whole.

"It builds my confidence. It builds my teammates' confidence in me, so I feel great when I'm in there at the end of the game, no matter how many minutes I may play," the Tomball, Texas (a suburb of Houston) native said Wednesday, later adding his far-fetched prediction--Texans 120, Bears 3--for Sunday's matchup between the two NFL juggernauts. "It has been tough to have to wait for playing time, but you have to wait for everything. I feel like nothing's given to you. I've been waiting all my life for the most part, so whenever the opportunity's there, you've got to capitalize on it.

"My job is to go in and shut down whoever--or attempt to shut down whoever--they assign me to court and crash the offensive boards, be an energy guy and make an open shot when it's needed," the Marquette product continued. "I feel like I work hard enough to where I can battle day in and day out with anybody. I've got great teammates, so I see their work ethic. So, it makes me want to get in and do the same thing. Lu's constantly bringing me in the gym to shoot extra with him, so I feel like the more work I put in to it, the more ready I'll be.

"Tuesday's win was really big and I think it was a big step for our team, as well, knowing that we can go that far into our bench and be able to close out a game like that--high energy, getting stops, making shots--it was huge."

While Butler must continue to improve his ballhandling and consistency on his outside jumper, his athleticism, defensive prowess and versatility--Thibodeau utilized him defensively at shooting guard, next to Deng on the wing, against Orlando--offers the Bulls a different dimension. Butler is already a superior defender, if not offensive player, to shooting guards Rip Hamilton and backup Marco Belinelli, so if the team can sacrifice some shooting, the former Big East star can bring his size to the table, an effective deterrent to the league's many talented perimeter players.

Thibodeau finished Tuesday's contest with a lineup featuring Butler, Gibson and Robinson alongside starters Deng and Joakim Noah. To the coach, his closers are in a meritocracy, where their play and matchups determine who's on the floor at the end of a tight game.

Deng, whether he's scoring prolifically or simply playing his typically sticky defense, is a given to be on the court, especially since he rarely exits games anyway, while Noah, in much better early-season shape than last season's lockout-truncated campaign, is also a good bet with former understudy Omer Asik now in Houston.

"Deng is great. You need scoring, he gives you scoring. You need great defense, he can guard anyone on the floor. He gives you that. He plays to win. He doesn't play to get numbers, so if he win and he scores 10, he's happy. If we win and he scores 25, he's happy. Whatever you need, he just plays for the team. That's what makes him so valuable and he can score so many different ways. He's such a complete player, he's unselfish. Whenever he's double-teamed, he hits the open man. He's constantly moving without the ball. He makes your team better in a lot of different ways," Thibodeau said, before moving on to Noah--with whom he wasn't pleased with for shooting a last-second three-pointer in an attempt to win Big Macs for the United Center crowd; Thibodeau wouldn't divulge what was said between the two--and slightly bristling at the notion that the center wouldn't be able to handle the increased workload he's seen in the early going throughout the course of the season. "Noah has been around now. I think he understands how to play. His body position has improved dramatically. He has the ability to think ahead, he knows what's coming. I think he's developed more of a multiple-effort mentality, the ability to go from one thing to the next, to the next very quickly. So, I think that's what's helped him the most."

If defense is a priority or Gibson is playing well, the recently-extended reserve will see the bulk of the fourth-quarter minutes, but if scoring is needed, starting power forward Carlos Boozer is likely to be used as a primary scoring option and facilitator, due to his offensive prowess and the fact that he remains an adept rebounder. In the backcourt, Thibodeau has options. During Hamilton's tenure in Chicago thus far, his minutes in the final stanza have been somewhat spotty, but he should be counted on more this season, while Belinelli provides more of a pure long-distance threat and Butler brings his aforementioned defensive mindset.

Another option at guard is using floor generals Robinson and starter Kirk Hinrich together, although that's only been seen in small doses early this season. Thibodeau downplayed the fact that Robinson has closed out half of the Bulls' four games this season.

"Depending on what we need, whether we need more scoring or more defense, who's going well. But I think Kirk has played well. His size and his ability to defend is critical. Nate can break people down off the dribble, so their strengths are different. But we need them both. You may see them both out there together," he explained. "Just seeing how it unfolds. We've always finished with different people. Each night, someone's got a hot hand going. We're going to try to milk that and again, a lot depends on what's going on out there on the floor.

"I have an idea of how I want to finish, but you don't know how the game is unfolding. You don't know the personnel that they have on the floor. The thing that I do like about our team is we have a lot of versatility. We have guys that can defend and play multiple positions, so I think that's a plus and we're going to use whatever it is to our advantage," Thibodeau added. "That's why you're a team. You have to put the team first, everyone has to sacrifice and you have to recognize if someone's going well, maybe it's better for the team if they finish. We're always going to do what's best for the team first."

Soldier Field reportedly a finalist to host 2017 MLS All-Star Game

soldierfield-0927.jpg

Soldier Field reportedly a finalist to host 2017 MLS All-Star Game

According to a report from Crain's Chicago Business, Chicago's Soldier Field may be in the running to host next year's MLS All-Star Game.

The report says the city and Major League Soccer are discussing Chicago hosting the All-Star Game, which includes a number of other events in the lead up to the game.

Toyota Park, which is located in suburban Bridgeview, hosted the All-Star Game in 2006 less than two months after the stadium opened. Soldier Field has never hosted the MLS All-Star Game.

The Chicago Fire played in Soldier Field from the team's expansion season in 1998 until Soldier Field renovations in 2002. The Fire moved back to the renovated Soldier Field midway through the 2003 season before heading to Toyota Park.

If Soldier Field hosts the All-Star Game, it would be the first non-MLS venue to host the game since 2010 when Houston's Reliant Stadium hosted the MLS All-Stars against Manchester United.

This year's All-Star Game was in San Jose's year-and-a-half old Avaya Stadium. Arsenal beat the MLS All-Stars 2-1.

Stan Bowman likes Blackhawks prospects' potential to fill holes

Stan Bowman likes Blackhawks prospects' potential to fill holes

The Blackhawks have holes to fill on their roster, especially among the forwards. And general manager Stan Bowman reiterated that the team will look from within to fill them.

“The guys we have are the ones that are here, and our team’s going to come from this group,” said Bowman, who addressed the media on Tuesday. “We’ve only had a few days of camp here but it’s been a bright start. They’re all full of energy, excitement, knowing they have a chance to make the team. Maybe it’s been different than in previous years when they’ve looked at the lineup and wondered where they might fit. And now, they know there’s a possibility they can make the team if they pay well. That’s what these games are going to be, starting tomorrow, we’re going to have an opportunity to see how they perform in a game setting.”

It’s still way too early to say where some of those young players fit; Patrick Kane just joined camp on Tuesday and several other veteran Blackhawks who were playing at the World Cup of Hockey are either still there or just returned from Toronto. But Bowman’s liked what he’s seen from several prospects. Some of them, including Nick Schmaltz, Tyler Motte and Alexandre Fortin, who the Blackhawks signed on Sunday, are expected to play in Wednesday’s preseason opener vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A big concern is still who’s going to play on the top line with Jonathan Toews. Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz are two possibilities – Schmaltz was on the left side during Tuesday morning’s skate. He’s primarily been a center but, as it usually goes with the Blackhawks, forwards have to be versatile. But Bowman wasn’t sure who would play in that top left-wing spot, or in other spots, at this juncture.

“I think it’s hard to give a direct answer to that because we have to see what Joel [Quenneville] thinks when he gets here, as well,” said Bowman on Quenneville, who’s still with Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey. “We have to see how they perform in the exhibition games. But stability is a nice thing. I think having a familiar line mate can help you in a lot of situations. But as the year goes on, sometimes things get stale or injuries happen. You have to have flexibility for different players to float into those roles.”

North American fun

Bowman himself recently returned from the World Cup of Hockey, where he was co-general manager of Team North America. That group brought a tremendous amount of excitement to the tournament, despite not moving onto the semifinal round.

“It was a blast to be part of that group. I had so much fun. You never know how it’s going to go when you’re first asked to be part of it but we had a great time. It was a treat even to watch those guys in practice.”

Liking Forsling

Bowman has liked what he’s seen from defenseman Gustav Forsling, who’s vying for a spot on the Blackhawks’ roster. Forsling could also return to the Swedish league.

“He was very impressive there [at Traverse City]. I thought comfortable, poised, very talented in both transitioning the offense, making plays. So there's a lot to like there,” Bowman said. “We're certainly going to see how he plays in these exhibition games. Whether he benefitted from going to Sweden? That's a great league, so if he does end up back there, he's going to continue to grow his game. But we haven't made that decision yet. We want to see how things go here.”