Jimmy Butler pulls Bulls into three-way tie with third straight win

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Jimmy Butler pulls Bulls into three-way tie with third straight win

Jimmy Butler stood at the line, showered with adoration from a suddenly engaged United Center crowd, encouraged with letters he probably never imagined possible, in a situation he only dreamed to be in.

Two free throws as twenty thousand chanted "M-V-P" for the man who scored 25 of his 33 points in the second half as he didn't get a moment's rest, the man who had to defend Tim Hardaway on the game's final play as a triple went off the back iron with 2.1 seconds left.

Butler literally willed the Bulls to a 106-104 win over the Atlanta Hawks Saturday afternoon, their third straight victory, pulling them to a three-way tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for seventh place in the Eastern Conference—with the Bulls holding the tiebreaker over both.

"He was phenomenal," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We got down 10 and we just kept fighting. Jimmy did everything again. He just found a way to get to the basket, had ten free throws and made them all."

And what's more frightening for the Bulls, this game over the Hawks is the last against a team with a winning record, meaning the season and their playoff chances are in their hands.

Or more specifically, Butler's hands, as long as his legs can hold up playing 42 grueling minutes.

The margins are thin, especially with Dwyane Wade out and the Bulls turning into a different team on the fly. Nikola Mirotic's March to remember made an April fool out of those who expected it to extend, as he hit two of eight from the field—but one was a big triple in the fourth.

Even Butler's last-second heroics was on a play that seemed broken, with Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore doing everything right on the possession: Not giving Butler any airspace, shadowing his right hand and keeping him for going downhill—until he got a little too aggressive on Butler's desperate long two-pointer, fouling him on the arm.

Butler, averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 assists and 6.5 rebounds on 55 percent shooting in his last six games, stepped forward again.

"I wouldn't call it pressure; I always look at it like nobody picked us to be in the playoffs, nobody picked us to win, anyway," Butler said. "I'm just out there playing basketball. I want to win; everybody knows that. I'm just doing what everybody asked me to do, so to speak."

If the free throws are any indication, if the Bulls' comeback from down 89-79 after leading by 10 in the third is another one, the Bulls could be discovering some much needed resolve with six games remaining.

Denzel Valentine hit two triples after the Bulls came out of the subsequent timeout trailing by 10, the last where he passed up kicking it to Butler on the wing on a fast break.

"It shows you what type of kid he is, the confidence he has in himself," Hoiberg said of Valentine, who scored 13 points.

Butler didn't mind the confidence and Hoiberg admired the moxie, as Valentine hit two of the Bulls' 12 triples—a team that's suddenly a 3-point threat after being woefully futile for most of the season.

Continuing a trend after his post-All Star slump, Butler seemingly had enough energy down the stretch to lift the Bulls. Getting to the lane for a layup and then hitting a clear-out triple to tie the game at 102 with two minutes left, it seemed like he was going to have to make every big play late.

"No disrespect to my teammates or anybody, but Fred said, ‘are you tired?' I said no," Butler said. "I want to play, I want to be the reason we win."

With a game against the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday afternoon on the road, the Bulls could be too emotionally spent to capitalize on playing a sub-.500 team. But only this moment was important, consequences be damned.

"I told him "I'm not worried about tomorrow; I'm worried about the right now.' So whatever they need for me to do I'm going out there and doing it," Butler said.

Rajon Rondo again played headliner early while Butler warmed himself into the game, scoring 25 with 11 rebounds on 11 of 18 shooting, with three 3-pointers and seven turnovers in 36 minutes.

The increased trust between the coaching staff and Butler to Rondo is evident, and Rondo has been driving this car as much as Butler through this recent stretch that has many encouraged about an actual playoff appearance.

Losing this game after beating Cleveland would mean nothing, and would symbolize yet another layer of inconsistency in a season full of it.

"We knew this was the biggest game of the season," Rondo said. "These guys have beaten us seven straight times, we wanted to take home court and give the fans something to cheer about."

But there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks would repeat their performance against the Bulls from months ago, when they came back from a 10-point deficit in the last three minutes to send the Bulls into mini-turmoil.

The Hawks—specifically point guard Dennis Schroder—got into the lane at will, scoring 29 points with six assists and seven rebounds. Hardaway Jr. kept the Hawks in it with 20 points, including a stretch of nine straight in the third when the Bulls were threatening to pull away.

But the game went topsy-turvy on both ends, leading to a Bazemore foul on Butler when it looked like a terrible possession late would lead to yet another disappointing home loss.

Five Things to Watch: Bulls clash with Raptors tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls clash with Raptors tonight on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Toronto Raptors tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Can the winning streak continue? Perhaps it’s not as wild as the #TNTBulls streak, but the fact that the Bulls have won 12 straight games over a Raptors team that’s had plenty of success since 2013 is absurd. Can it continue? The Bulls have played some of their best basketball this season against the league’s best, and the Raptors are hoping to avoid a second consecutive year of a season sweep at the hands of the Bulls.

2. Playoffs still a real shot. The Bulls will need help to get it done, but they’re just a single game behind the Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. After head-to-head, conference record is the next tiebreaker, and that could come into play by season’s end with the Pistons. That means the Bulls need wins, and especially need to get them against East foes. To steal one on the road against a quality opponent would be huge.

3. The point guard rotation lessens by one. Cameron Payne has been sent to the D-League, and the point guard position looks like Rajon Rondo’s for now. Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams will fill in from there, but even against a Kyle Lowry-less team this is going to be a stiff test for this group. The Bulls will need Rondo to get going early.

4. Scoring won’t be easy. The Raptors have really picked it up defensively of late after adding both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. The Bulls had a solid showing offensively against the Jazz and will look to replicate it against a Raptors team hitting its stride on that end of late. Defense won’t necessarily win it tonight; finding enough baskets late will.

5. Denzel Valentine filling in for D-Wade. Dwyane Wade of course is still out, but Denzel Valentine has played well the last two weeks. Valentine has scored in double-digits a career-best five straight games, averaging 11.4 points on 42 percent shooting in that span. The Bulls will continue leaning on him for those kinds of outings.

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Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine show up in Bulls win over Jazz

Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine show up in Bulls win over Jazz

A streaking Bobby Portis ran down the baseline after going full bore to close out on Joe Johnson, finding gold when Denzel Valentine launched a 45-foot fly pattern pass for a dunk.

That’s what’s called “Player Development”, as was Valentine’s triple that luckily rolled out to him in the left corner when Utah’s Rudy Gobert slapped Joffrey Lauvergne’s layup to Kingdom Come.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Valentine said. “You gotta stay patient, aggressive and confident.”

Both were critical plays in the fourth quarter against a quality opponent fighting for playoff position in the Bulls’ 95-86 over the Jazz Saturday night at the United Center.

Like Friday night, the Bulls played a spirited fourth quarter, erasing early mistakes and a double-digit deficit with vigor, timely shooting and an energy that’s rarely been seen this year.

One could say it was their best defensive performance of the season, on the heels of Wizards point guard John Wall carving up the Bulls’ defense for 20 assists. Holding the Jazz under 40 percent was an unsung highlight, and Jimmy Butler choked off the Jazz’ last hope by snatching the ball from a streaking Gordon Hayward and saving it from going out of bounds with less than a minute left and the Bulls leading by six.

“Go get the ball back,” Butler said. “It started with Mike (Carter-Williams) from making a play on the ball and making him alter his layup. I got it in just enough time to grab it. Just great hustle on everybody’s part.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was impressed by the overall effort on the defensive end, especially after the way they’ve played in the last stretch, having lost seven of their last eight.

“I thought we really locked in all night,” Hoiberg said. “We didn’t get off to a great start, down eight to ten off the bat. We did a good job in the second half, beginning of the third quarter.”

But perhaps the biggest highlight was the reliance on the young players who rose to the challenge under the circumstances, as the book is still out on Portis and Valentine to be sure.

For once, though, they produced in a winning situation, as Valentine scored 11 with 12 rebounds and four assists while Portis scored a career-high 22 points with five rebounds, doing his best to contain Joe Johnson on the perimeter while helping out on the mammoth Gobert (13 points, 13 rebounds) on the interior.

“Most of the time, I don’t play in the fourth quarter,” Portis said. “it was fun to see how fired up our guys were, even the bench was happy. The crowd, too. They were really involved tonight.”

If Portis followed the usual pattern of being pulled from the starting lineup as he was for Nikola Mirotic, he wouldn’t have seen the floor, as was the case with the revolving door of point guards.

But when he entered, he was aggressive, hitting jumpers and floaters, playing free and easy. After looking unsure of himself the last several games, he played definitively and it showed as he took advantage of every opportunity he had to score.

When he entered, the Bulls were down 18-10 with 3:27 left in the first after trailing by 12, and the energy in the building changed immediately.

“I liked starting so I played with a chip on my shoulder,” Portis said. “The last couple games I was hesitant to shoot. I gotta get that out my system. Probably just thinking too much and not playing the way the game is supposed to be played.”

Hitting his first six shots, he scored 13 in the first half, and three straight buckets to start the fourth gave the Bulls a slim lead, critical while Butler was on the bench.

“The biggest thing was putting two halves together, a complete game,” Portis said. “I feel like I did. I took good shots, I didn’t force anything on the offensive end. I let the game come to me. We got a big, well-needed win tonight.”

Butler finished with 23 points and seven assists in 37 minutes, but it wasn’t all isolation ball as the Bulls got him shots in different places, punctuated by several cuts to the basket, including a late one that resulted in a three-point play on his first possession midway through the fourth.

Sometimes the load appears to be too much for Butler, carrying an offensive load while keeping the other team’s best perimeter player in check on the other end.

But he put Hayward on punishment and holding him to five of 16 shooting and 14 points.

Whether it was a by-product of one leading the other or overall concentration on defense, it was likely their best performance of the season on that end, forcing 15 turnovers and keeping the Jazz to just 25 percent from three.

The only fly in the ointment was getting outrebounded 49-39, an aspect that kept the Jazz ahead until the third when the Bulls took their first lead at 49-48, a comeback after trailing by 12 early and looking pretty lifeless.

But the life came from the youth, as they showed their worth for a night, in a season where they don’t have many more opportunities to impress for the future.