Chicago Bulls

The Butler did it: Jimmy looks like an MVP contender in leading Bulls to comeback win over Raptors

The Butler did it: Jimmy looks like an MVP contender in leading Bulls to comeback win over Raptors

If ever Jimmy Butler needed to send a message regarding the rumors about the Bulls looking to see what they can get for him, it was a resounding one, a loud one.

Either that or the Bulls’ mantra against the Toronto Raptors is “hang around long enough for them to screw it up.”

Make no mistake, Butler put his tattoo on the game when he walked Kyle Lowry down for a step-back triple with 17.3 seconds left in overtime, giving the Bulls a five-point lead and putting the finishing touches on a 123-118 win at the United Center, their 10th straight win over their rivals from up north.

Make that another 40-point showing — 42 to be exact, with 10 rebounds and five assists — but also loudly showing the world he is the franchise player he believes himself to be, while muscling himself into true consideration for Most Valuable Player.

At worst, with wins and signature moments over Charlotte, Cleveland and now Toronto, Butler probably sealed Player of the Week honors by averaging 38 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists.

“I think so,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg when asked if Butler deserved MVP consideration.

“Just what he’s done for this team. This stretch he’s got going. Continues to add to his game. He’s playing with the ball in his hands a lot. He’s been phenomenal.”

If these numbers and this production continues, voters will have to take notice and put him in the same class as the presumed frontrunners, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

“I don’t know about all that,” Butler said. “Take that one step at a time. All that’s way down the road from here. We have to continue to win for that to ever be a question.”

He mastered the balance between aggression and facilitating, particularly in overtime after a 25-point second half, keeping his teammates involved.

Butler found a relatively streaking Doug McDermott cutting on the baseline while hanging in midair, with McDermott finishing with a two-handed dunk to give the Bulls their largest lead of the game at 116-111.

Butler was relentless on both ends, taking the punishment while driving to the basket and dishing it out while guarding Lowry on defense, surely leaving the man fatigued after 44 minutes and going to the line 20 times.

“He was out there guarding (DeMar) DeRozan for three quarters then Lowry, who leads the NBA in points in the fourth quarter,” Hoiberg said, as Lowry went 2-for-6 in the period.

“A lot of guys are putting up huge numbers, do it on one end and let somebody else guard the other team’s best player. Jimmy’s doing both for us. To expend that energy on the defensive end and continue to do what he does on offense says a lot about him.”

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Jimmy Butler jersey right here]

Butler scored, to the tune of nine straight to tie the game at 99 in the fourth, an unexpected feat with the Raptors once leading 82-63 with 3:42 left in the third quarter.

“You can see it. He wants it,” Dwyane Wade said. “So many guys have talent. The mentality it takes, even if you’re having a bad game like Cleveland (when) he wasn’t shooting well, to still be able to do it in the clutch. That’s special. He’s putting himself in the category of special.”

When he didn’t score, he did ridiculous things like drawing triple teams and feeding Wade for a dunk to give the Bulls a 101-99 lead. Or when he missed a go-ahead triple, he tracked the miss to tip it left-handed to Nikola Mirotic for a corner three that set the United Center into a frenzy.

The Bulls’ comeback was on the back of Butler but also McDermott and Mirotic as Hoiberg has found increasing confidence in a floor-spreading group as a closing lineup, with McDermott scoring 17 and Mirotic 12.

McDermott rebounded from missing an open triple at the top of the key to nailing the very next one the next possession on a pass from Wade, giving the Bulls a 107-105 lead with 39.5 seconds left in regulation.

“They were huge, knocking down big shot after big shot,” Butler said. “I’m smiling because I’m confident, that’s what we need. When you miss your shot, you have to take your shot again.”

Shooting under 40 percent was offset by spirited play and 11 triples as the Bulls are finally hitting their share of outside shots — even with Butler going 10-for-25 and Wade going 6-for-19, they crawled back into the game when all seemed lost.

“It was huge for those guys to stay with it,” Hoiberg said. “The way we hung in there, found some fight after being stuck in the mud (in the first half). Played one possession at a time, and that’s what you have to do to climb your way back in it.”

A wild finish to regulation sent the game into overtime, after Wade missed a short jumper, followed by a Cristiano Felicio tipped miss, followed by DeRozan and Lowry missing shots in the paint before the buzzer sounded.

Lowry continued his understated dominance, recognizing every mismatch on the floor and exploiting it with nine of his game-high 12 assists in the first half, when the Raptors took a 16-point lead — making the Bulls look like they hadn’t had two days in between games.

Lowry and DeRozan took over the game in the ways that made the Raptors an Eastern Conference finalist last season. Lowry finished with 27 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds. Lowry has grown into a better facilitator while DeRozan has become a far more aggressive shot-taker and maker, perhaps a product of being an Olympian over the summer, finishing with a team-high 36 points and eight rebounds.

DeRozan and Butler went at it all night, with the two gold medalists showing how their games benefitted from the summer experience.

But the Bulls’ mastery over the Raptors continued, and the Raptors need point to one culprit for their misery, as the Butler did it — again.

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

michaelporter.jpg
USA TODAY

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

2018 draft class is loaded at the top

Quietly, you can bet Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman had a little celebration after hearing that prep star Marvin Bagley III was going to graduate from high school early and enroll at Duke for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the 2018 draft.

Bagley, a 6'11 power forward from Los Angeles, is being compared to longtime NBA star Chris Bosh, right down to his smooth left-handed shooting touch. Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and two blocked shots during his junior season for Sierra Canyon H.S. He's also fared well against NBA competition at the highly-regarded Drew League in L.A. this summer. Bagley’s physical tools are off the charts, and you can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing him well for life in the NBA.

Most NBA scouts and execs expect the No. 1 overall pick to come down to either Bagley or Michael Porter Jr., who will play his one season of college basketball at Missouri. The 6'10 Porter averaged an amazing 34.8 points and 13.8 rebounds last season against Seattle high school competition. He's considered a more dynamic scorer than Bagley with more range on his jump shot. Some scouts believe he could quickly develop into one of the league's elite players with Kevin Durant-type length and shooting ability at the small forward position.

International swingman Luka Doncic is also highly coveted by NBA teams. The 6'8 swingman has excellent shooting range, and is also capable of creating his own shot with outstanding ball-handling ability. Forget the stereotype of European players being mechanical and unable to compete athletically, Doncic is capable of being an 18-20 point scorer in the NBA and should go in the top five next June. He's considered one of the best international prospects in the last decade.

Two 7-footers also will hear their names called early on draft night 2018. University of Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds in high school last season, while Texas freshman center Mohamed Bomba has an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan. Sure, the NBA has moved away from the traditional low post center, but teams are still looking to acquire agile big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. Depending on how they fare against top level college competition, Ayton and Bomba could round out the top five.

Other names to watch in the lottery portion of next year's draft include Texas A&M power forward Robert Williams, Michigan State's forward duo of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., and the latest one-and-dones from John Calipari's Kentucky program, center Nick Richards and small forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

In case you missed it, ESPN released its preseason win total expectations for the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and the Bulls were dead last with a projected record of 26-56. Now, I'm not sure a team with veterans Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez and the three young players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota will be quite that bad, but if you're going to rebuild, the idea is to get the best draft pick possible, and the Bulls appear to be on course for a top-five selection depending on how the lottery falls.

If the Bulls are able to land an elite talent like Porter Jr., Bagley III or Doncic in the draft, then use their $40-50 million in cap space to land a couple of quality free agents, the rebuild might not be as painful as some fans are fearing.

Last dance for LeBron in Cleveland?

Well-connected NBA writer Chris Sheridan dropped this bomb on Twitter Wednesday, quoting an NBA source, "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair." Don’t forget, Sheridan was the first national writer to report James was going to leave Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, so his reports definitely warrant a little extra attention.

Okay, we've already heard countless rumors about James planning to join the Lakers after next season. He's built a mansion in Brentwood, is close with Magic Johnson and will be able to bring another superstar with him to L.A. like Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Plus, the Lakers have a number of talented young players in place like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. and a promising coach in Luke Walton.

Add in the likelihood Kyrie Irving will be traded before training camp opens and LeBron's long-standing poor relationship with Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, and you have the perfect formula for another James' free agent decision next July. Although, I'm not sure why LeBron would want to go West, where Golden State is positioned to dominate the league for another five seasons, with strong challengers like the Rockets and Spurs still in place. 

But if we've learned anything from watching James over the years, he's clearly a man who wants to align the odds in his favor. So don't rule out anything when it comes to James' free agent decision. If the Cavs make a home run trade for Irving, maybe LeBron decided to plays out his career in his home state. If not, look for him to find a team with the cap space to bring in another top star to run with him.

Back in 2010, the Bulls carved out the cap space to add two max contract stars, but lost out to Pat Riley in Miami. This time around they won't be on James' July travel itinerary.

One thing we know for sure. Where LeBron plays in 2018 will be the number one story throughout the NBA season.

Report: Bulls expected to reach buyout agreement with Dwyane Wade

Report: Bulls expected to reach buyout agreement with Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade's homecoming may not last much longer. 

According to Nick Friedell's ESPN report, the Bulls are expected to reach a buyout agreement with the 12-time NBA All-Star "at some point in the next few months." 

The news comes two months after Wade picked up his player option, choosing $24 million over earning less on a more competitive team. 

If Gar Forman and John Paxson indeed decide to buy D-Wade out, the "Three Alphas," which consisted of Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, would all be out just one season after coming together. 

The buyout may also mean more ping-pong balls in next year's stacked draft