Chicago Bulls

Jimmy Butler carries Bulls on both ends: 'The great ones want all that on their plate'

Jimmy Butler carries Bulls on both ends: 'The great ones want all that on their plate'

Through 57 games Jimmy Butler has battled through various injuries, silenced the outside whispers of trade talks, and met questions about his leadership inside the Bulls’ locker room head on. Through all that noise the 27-year-old has emerged as one of the game’s best players, an honor which will be validated Sunday night when he starts in the All-Star Game alongside the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

But before shipping off to New Orleans for the weekend Butler had business to finish in Chicago. Specifically, the three-time All-Star was tasked with shutting down fourth-quarter sensation Isaiah Thomas on one end, while acting as the go-to scorer down the stretch on the offensive end.

And though it didn’t end in a dazzling buzzer beater or one of his vintage lockdown defensive stands, Butler did it once again for the Bulls, adding another highlight to an already remarkable season in the Bulls’ 104-103 victory over the red-hot Celtics.

Marcus Smart nicked Butler on his shooting elbow with 0.9 seconds remaining and the Bulls trailing by one. Butler, who had made 43 of 44 clutch free throws this season, calmly sank a pair of freebies to give the Bulls a lead. And it was he who defended Al Horford’s shot at the buzzer that missed long and sealed the Bulls’ victory in the NBA’s final game before the All-Star break.

“I was still hoping it went in,” Butler said after the game. “We ran it the way we were supposed to. We got the look that we wanted. I told Jerian (Grant) what move I was gonna do, and (Smart) got a piece of the elbow. At the end of the day (referee Zach Zarba) made the right call.”

Butler’s late drawn foul and subsequent free throws were the end result of a masterful fourth quarter. And the competition he did it against couldn’t have been a more difficult matchup. Boston entered Thursday’s game having won 11 of 12, and leading scorer Isaiah Thomas had averaged 32.6 points and nearly 4 triples per game in February. More than that, Thomas entered averaging 10.7 points per fourth quarter, the highest mark since the NBA began tracking the stat in 1996.

That made the Bulls’ situation all the more perilous when Brad Stevens subbed Thomas in with 8:47 remaining and the Bulls clinging to a one-point lead. Fred Hoiberg countered with bringing back Butler, who drew the arduous assignment of guarding Thomas down the stretch.

"That was kind of our plan going in, that Michael (Carter-Williams) was going to spend the majority of the time on (Thomas). And then Jimmy in the fourth quarter was going to be the guy that we were going to switch on to him. (Thomas is) just such a tough cover,” Fred Hoiberg said of Thomas, who is second in the NBA in scoring, “the way he finishes over size, he pulls up from anywhere on the court, has unlimited range and does a great job getting to the free throw line.”

Thomas was every bit as good as advertised in the final stanza, Of the final 19 points the Celtics scored in the final frame, Thomas had a hand in 16 of them, with 11 points and two assists to Kelly Olynyk on a pair of jumpers. But Butler made Thomas work for his points, chasing around the 5-foot-9 point guard and forcing him into passes or quick shots. With the Celtics up one with 1:10 remaining Butler blocked a Thomas layup attempt. The next trip down Butler also closed out on Thomas’ left wing 3-pointer which was off the mark and set up the Bulls’ game winning possession.

“He’s a lot to deal with,” Butler said bluntly after the game.

But defense was only half the story. Playing without Dwyane Wade for the third straight game, the Bulls offense minus Butler was crawling to the finish line. After beginning the fourth quarter 4-for-9 from the field, hanging on to a lead built up with a 29-point third quarter, the Bulls finished the game 1-for-8, with Butler’s bank shot to tie the game at 94 apiece the lone make at the 4:58 mark.

It was just enough offense to get it done, just as Smart got just enough of Butler’s elbow to draw a whistle. Butler initiated offense, found open shooters (despite the misses) and finished with nine points of his own in the final period, essentially matching Thomas as best he could.

And with the game on the line Butler made his free throws look anything but pressure-filled.

“In a time like that I do it all the time in the gym by myself before the game,” he said. “Nothing. No pressure.”

As far as basketball clichés go, “two-way players” can often get overused. But it’s exactly what Butler was on Thursday, carrying an offense while shadowing the league’s second-leading scorer the final 9 minutes of the game. Butler, who finished with 29 points on 9-for-20 shooting and seven assists, has transformed himself into one of the game’s best players, but Thursday he looked like a true superstar, taking over the game and stepping up when it mattered most.

“It’s what he wants. And really it’s what the great players want,” Hoiberg said. “Looking back in the history, the great ones want all that on their plate. Jimmy’s no exception. He’s a guy that’s going to go out and take the challenge, anything that’s given to him. And it pays off more often than not.”

Thursday night was also important for a Bulls team caught in between contending in the East and tearing it all down in place of a rebuild. The outcome – it was also the Bulls’ 17th consecutive TNT Thursday home win – won’t make the decisions Gar Forman and John Paxson make this week toward the trade deadline any easier.

The Bulls have won two straight – against the Raptors and Celtics, no less – and have an impressive 9-8 record against the six teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. Though the Bulls enter the All-Star break with a losing record for the first time since 2010 and have far more questions than answers on their roster, they’re also on track to make the postseason in the subpar bottom half of the East.

No matter who’s dealt or brought in before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, with Butler leading the way the Bulls will always feel as though they have a chance to win games. It showed Thursday against a Celtics team that’s inching closer to the Cavs atop that Eastern Conference. And barring a blockbuster deal that sends Butler to the team he tormented for 40 minutes on Thursday, the Bulls will have that player as they continue their push toward .500 and a postseason berth.

“It just shows that we’re capable of winning games. Moving forward we can’t worry about who we’re beating. We’ve got to go against everybody the same,” Butler said. “Home away, neutral site, whatever it may be: win. That’s all that matters."

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

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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