NBA

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

The Bulls are focused on their own basketball these days, and in winning two of three they may have righted a ship that was headed toward another playoff miss.

But with just eight games remaining in the regular season they're also aware of where they stand in a closely knit Eastern Conference. 

Entering Tuesday night the Bulls sit one-half game behind the Miami Heat for the No. 8 seed in the conference, while just 3.5 games separate the fifth-seeded Hawks and tenth-seeded Hornets.

With the Bulls in the middle of so much movement that's bound to change a half dozen times between now and April 12, Fred Hoiberg and his team admit they're paying attention to what the rest of the league is doing.

"You almost have to this time of the year with all the outlets, being able to watch every game with (NBA) League Pass," Hoiberg said at Tuesday's practice. "You do keep an eye on what other teams are doing. But at the same time we talk every day about how it's up to us. We've got to go out and play with purpose, play with energy every time we step on the floor, and give ourslves a chance to win."

The Bulls have done just that lately. 

An ugly skid in which they lost eight of 10 in March saw them fall out of the East playoff race, but crucial wins over the Pistons and Bucks - albeit with an ugly home loss to Philadelphia - have the Bulls back in solid playoff positioning.

Though they trail the Heat for that No. 8 spot, the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Miami (2-1 season series advantage) and have a far easier remaining schedule down the stretch. In fact, the Bulls' remaining opponents have a combined win percentage of .390, the easiest remaining path in the East. It's different in Miami, where Erik Spoelstra's group has the third most difficult remaining stretch in the East.

Throw in injuries to Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside and it's looking likely that the Bulls will catch Dwyane Wade's old team by season's end. The Bulls' only two games against teams with winning records are the Cavaliers (8-10 since February began) and the Atlanta Hawks (losers of seven in a row).

[WATCH: Jimmy Butler puts Benny the Bulls on last after draining trick shot]

After that the Bulls get bottom feeders in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Orlando and Brooklyn twice. Then again, the Bulls have had issues against some of those teams, as they tout a 7-4 record against those squads (with losses to New York twice, Philadelphia and Orlando).

With Wade out of the lineup the rest of the year the backcourt tandem of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo has picked up the slack. Rondo is looking more like the player who signed a two-year, $30 million deal this past offseason, averaging 12.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 7.4 assists in 31.1 minutes since being moved back to the starting lineup on March 13.

"I just try to look at what we're doing and control what we can control," Rajon Rondo said. "We're not playing other teams that we're racing against so we got 8 left and we want to take advantage of all eight.

"I would love to get back to the playoffs. That's the goal. That was the goal when I came here was to make the playoffs, nothing else. So we got a little bit more work to do.

Jimmy Butler claimed he hasn't been focused on what other teams around the Bulls are doing, but knows that making the playoffs has added value. Though the Bulls would likely be the No. 8 and seed and face either the Celtics or Cavaliers, with so many young players on the roster that experience can pay dividends down the line.

"You get to see how important every possession is, the way you've got to lock in, the challenge of playing the same team the possibility of seven times, it just shows the mental growth that you're gonna have to withstand and hold through a seven-game series," Butler said. "It's a lot harder than the regular season, I'll tell you that much."

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Honda Road Ahead: Bulls continue playoff push against Cavaliers, Hawks

Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue break down the Bulls' upcoming schedule in the latest edition of the Bulls Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda dealers.

TNT Bulls are back this week as the team heads into a crucial stretch. 

Currently, the Bulls sit half a game back of the Miami Heat for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and with just eight games remaining on the schedule, each contest is essentially a must-win. 

So, yes, Thursday would be a great time for Jimmy Butler and company to summon their TNT alter ego. The Bulls have sealed 18 straight victories when playing on TNT Thursday, an improbable feat considering those games are usually reserved for two of the NBA's best. 

To continue that run, they'll have to down Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are also fighting for playoff positioning -- albeit at the top of the conference. Good thing the Bulls have a tendency to get up for big games. 

"The Bulls play up and down to their competition," Bulls Pregame and Postgame analyst Kendall Gill said. "They've been doing that the whole season." 

After Cleveland, the Bulls get set to battle another playoff squad, the Atlanta Hawks. 

Watch the video above to see Schanowski, Gill and Perdue break down the matchups. 

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Whacked on his ailing left hand by Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler shook off the pain to hit a rare triple in transition while Middleton was complaining for a foul a couple possessions later.

Butler then darted into the passing lane for a pass intended for Jason Terry like a linebacker jumping into the flat for an interception, then trotted down for an uncontested dunk to give the Bulls an unlikely 17-point lead.

For the man who claims he’s the best football player in the NBA, playing through the pain and doing so with his team’s playoff hopes dwindling, Butler may finally have some believers to his boasts.

Not only did the Bulls avoid a season sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks with a resounding 109-94 win at the BMO Bradley Center Sunday afternoon, they restored a slight sense of pride after looking like they had none of it Friday night in their loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I give them credit for bouncing back after a tough home loss,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to understand what makes us successful. When we’re committed to following the game plan and executing…It’s the little things we have to do that add up to give ourselves a chance to win.

Butler scored 20 with a career-high 14 assists in a grinding 39 minutes, but he could play the role of a semi-closer, making those big plays in the fourth when the Bulls pulled away, and pulled to within a game of the eighth playoff spot in the East.

But the Bulls’ defense, one that held the Bucks to just 39 points in the second half, caught his eye.

“I could actually say we played some legitimate defense,” Butler said. “Got back in transition, we always helped. We came out, stuck to the gameplan of getting back.”

He didn’t have to carry a heavy load offensively, though, leading to his being fresh down the stretch as he started the fourth quarter on the floor as opposed to the bench.

Instead, it was March Madness as Nikola Mirotic played up to his career numbers in his favorite month on the calendar, drilling five triples on his way to 28 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes.

It helped the Bulls shoot 54 percent overall, bringing their mark to 10-1 when they cross that threshold.

“I’ve been playing with a lot of confidence,” Mirotic said. “I’ve spent a lot of hours before practice and after. I know you guys have been asking about consistency, so I’m working on that and trying to be more consistent.”

Mirotic and Rajon Rondo helped the Bulls to a decisive double-digit lead in the third quarter with Rondo scoring 14 of his 18 points in the period, hitting a triple, getting into the lane for layups and dishing out a few of his eight assists.

It was an offensive masterpiece for the Bulls, a prospect that seemed highly unlikely given the opponent and the way they played coming into Sunday’s contest. And with the Bucks getting Giannis Antetokounmpo going early along with Middleton, it looked like a nightmare of a different kind was in store for the Bulls.

Antetokounmpo scored 22 with eight rebounds and seven assists, but 12 of those points happened in the first quarter. Middleton scored 14 but shot six of 17.

“When we get slapped in the face and punched in the mouth, adversity hits and we have to handle it and get through it,” Hoiberg said. “I didn’t see any head-hanging when it didn’t start off great.”

But Hoiberg wasn’t about to let an instant replay occur, having seen his own version of a “Nightmare on Madison Street” Friday night against the woeful 76ers when his backups let time stand still for minutes at a time, squandering a double-digit lead.

Hoiberg decided not to mess around with the second unit as the Bucks began pulling away in the same manner the 76ers did Friday night. He brought the starters right back in when the lead ballooned to 45-33 at the 8:29 mark.

“We were ready in case that happened,” Hoiberg said. “We felt we had to do everything possible to give ourselves a chance. We were ready to play our guys big minutes tonight and we’ll have to do that in the next eight games.”

Then the Bulls went to work to finish the half, with a 23-10 run, along with starting off the third as efficient as they had been in awhile against a worthwhile opponent, shooting 14 of 21 in the period to take a 91-79 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Mirotic was seven of eight from the field before halftime and his first miss of the third—a 30-foot triple that went wide right, wound up in a 3-point opportunity for Rondo, who scooped the ball and scored on a layup while being fouled.

It was that kind of afternoon for the Bulls, a team that can’t seem to decide who they want to be on a nightly basis—making it that much harder for an opponent to predict, that much more difficult to eliminate from the playoff conversation.