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.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.