Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler
TORONTO -- The Chicago Bulls don't have the best record in the league, but they might lead the NBA in confidence. Despite all the ups and downs they've dealt with on and off the floor this season, the Bulls believe they can knock off anybody. That confidence was on display in a 116-103 win over the Raptors on Wednesday as the Bulls outscored Toronto 39-21 in the fourth quarter.
"We don't play to lose that's for sure," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. "I think we can beat anybody. So I don't think it matters what seed we end up in. We just want to win as many games and get in a rhythm and get rolling heading into the playoffs."
While it might be more advantageous for the Bulls to slide into the fourth or fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs -- avoiding a potential second-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers -- Chicago is taking on a "win now" mentality with just nine regular-season games left.
Bulls center Joakim Noah said earlier this week that he believes his squad is "the toughest team to beat in a seven-game series." He isn't backing off those words as the Bulls get set for one of the most important postseason stretches in recent memory.
"I think we're a team that's gone through a lot," Noah said. "A lot of adversity. And I think our time is coming. I think we're a very talented group. And when you put all that talent together and we all play for the right reasons, I think we're going to have a shot and that's all you can ask for."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau certainly doesn't believe in playing to lose for a better seeding placement. He has trained his team over the past five years to try to win every game. He believes in going right at an opponent, instead of avoiding one for as long as possible. His players have taken to that mentality as well.
"You play to win," veteran Pau Gasol said. "We are aware and we want to get the highest seed possible just like everyone else. But at the same we understand that with winning games that's what we're going to accomplish. You can't focus on trying to get a specific seed."
The Bulls set a season high on Wednesday night by shooting 60.8 percent from the field, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Noah knows his team has a lot of room for improvement, but is confident that they are making strides in the right direction.
"I know that to win, these games are won on one, two possessions," Noah said. "And we all have to be on the same page. There's definitely another level we need to get to defensively. We're still making too many mental mistakes. But offensively, this is the best offensive team I've been on by far. So if we can just tighten up a little bit defensively it's going to be great."
Defense has been a Thibodeau staple over his tenure in Chicago, but the Bulls have struggled to defend at times. With so much hype surrounding a potential championship run, and so much uncertainty surrounding Thibodeau's future in Chicago, it will be interesting to see how this proud team handles the next round of play.
But in the short term, Noah and his teammates are trying to just focus on the positives. With Butler and Taj Gibson back on the floor, they are healthier than they've been most of the year. They're also confident that at some point in the next few weeks they will get Derrick Rose back as he recovers from a meniscectomy.
That's why Noah was smiling as he got ready to leave the visitor's locker room at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night. He's happy about the present, but he's even more excited about the future.
"Right now we just got to stay focused on us," Noah said. "That's the truth. We just got to focus on us and getting better. Guys are coming back from injuries and we feel like we have the deepest team in the league so it's a good feeling. We got a lot of weapons. We just got to keep getting better as a unit, keep polishing our games individually and it's exciting."
CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler went through all of Monday's shootaround and is expected to make his return Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets after missing the past three weeks because of a left elbow injury.
Butler, who injured the elbow in a March 1 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, was expected to be out 3-6 weeks after an MRI confirmed the ligament sprain. But the All-Star swingman has been making good progress in his rehab and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is hopeful that Butler will be able to play against the Hornets.
"We'll see when he warms up tonight but it looks like it could be a go," Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau also said that if Butler does play he will not be under any kind of minutes restriction.
"He's probably our best two-way player," Thibodeau said. "So any time you get a guy like that back it's going to help in all areas. It adds to the depth so it's good."
Butler, who was selected to the first All-Star Game of his career this season, is averaging 20.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
"It's very important to get our guys back," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "Jimmy's a big part of what we're trying to do and we're really excited to have him back ... He's a tough-minded player who plays to win. I think everybody does on this team, but Jimmy's a hell of a talent and brings us toughness, which we need."
"Obviously, he has to strengthen the knee," Thibodeau said after Rose took part in "some" of Tuesday's practice. "But it was good; he did a lot of noncontact stuff. So it's a good step for him."
Rose did not say for certain that he would be back this season, but acknowledged that is the plan when he addressed reporters for the first time last week. The procedure on Rose's knee took place on Feb. 27, and the Bulls originally said Rose would be out 4-6 weeks.
"I'd say he's on schedule, maybe even slightly ahead," Thibodeau said of Rose's progress. "It's good steady progress, and as long as he's able to keep moving forward like this, I think it's a real good sign."
Speaking of good signs for the Bulls: While Taj Gibson (ankle) and Jimmy Butler (elbow) will not play in Wednesday's game against the Indiana Pacers, both players went through all of Tuesday's practice, and Thibodeau is "hopeful" that both could be back this week. Gibson, who has been dealing with ankle problems throughout the season, hasn't played since reinjuring his left ankle on Feb. 27. Butler hasn't played since spraining a ligament in his left elbow on March 1. He was initially supposed to miss 3-6 weeks, but he is getting range of motion back and is feeling better. He wore a brace on his left arm during practice but is optimistic that he could be back this week.
"I think so," Butler said. "I think it's possible. I mean, my body feels great in the morning. My first practice back, I had a few bumps, but I think it's possible."
Butler said he didn't think he is ready to play "quite yet," but he knows it will be a big boost to get everyone healthy and back on the floor.
"It's good," Butler said. "It's good to see everybody out there trying to get back as soon as possible. But I think some guys are still a few days behind, and whenever their body gets back to it, that's when they'll be back."
Thibodeau is looking forward to having a full roster again in the near future.
"It's critical for us," he said of getting everyone back healthy. "There's 14 games left. We want to build some continuity, and it would be good to have everyone out there. Certainly, all three guys -- you look at Jimmy, Derrick and Taj -- they're critical to our team. So when we have those guys, it gives us good depth."
CHICAGO -- With 21 games left in the regular season and a showdown with Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder on the horizon Thursday night, the Chicago Bulls find themselves in a familiar position. Their backs are against the wall and they are playing without key players because of injury. Derrick Rose (knee) and Jimmy Butler (elbow) are out at least several more weeks, and Taj Gibson (ankle) is out for a little while longer, although Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau did note after Wednesday's light practice that Gibson is out of his walking boot.
The broader issue for Thibodeau and his players is how similar this season is unfolding compared to the last two years without Rose. No team likes having its star players injured down the stretch, but the Bulls are probably better equipped to handle this situation than almost any other team in the league given what they've dealt with over the last few years. They know the schedule is about to turn tough -- with four of their next seven games against teams with winning records -- and they understand that while help may be on the way before the regular season ends, they're going to have to withstand the schedule without Rose and Butler for the foreseeable.
"I think you have to have great will, great determination, and you have to be together," Thibodeau said of maintaining the intensity without key players. "I think when you have a group like that that's committed to playing for each other, good things can happen. When you look around the league you see the teams that are tied together and play hard each and every night, play smart, you give yourself a chance to win. You don't get here by accident; if you're here, you have great talent. Then it's how strong can you play as a team? Everyone has to understand what their job is. It's five-man offense, five-man defense and working together. That's what it's all about."
The intriguing part of this stretch is that the Bulls will be leaning on several players who are new to this situation. Veterans Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks are in their first year with the Bulls, while rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott are still in their NBA infancy. The hope is that the new group will be able to dig down deep to find the fire that it takes to play short-handed night after night. Over the past few years without Rose, Butler and Gibson were the ones who helped light that flame game after game. Now it must come from a different place.
"We'll see," Gasol said when asked how the Bulls will be able to sustain the energy that comes with playing the way they did in a hard-fought win over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night. "Obviously with our minds and our hearts into it a lot of things can happen, so we just bring our will every single night. Try to give ourselves a chance to win against whoever we're facing."
To that point, Gasol and his newer teammates will be able to lean on veterans Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich for guidance in how to deal with the annual setbacks that seem to come with wearing a Bulls uniform, but after being in the league for 14 seasons, it's not as if he hasn't had to play through injuries to teammates before.
The good news for the Bulls is that Joakim Noah seems to be playing his best basketball of the season. After struggling with the aftereffects of offseason knee surgery, Noah finally appears to be playing -- and feeling -- more like himself. Without Rose on the floor, and now without Butler and Gibson as well, the games become even more personal to the emotional big man. Like many of his teammates, he is at his best when he feels slighted, and his teammates thrive off the energy he provides.
Noah never wants to single himself out, but Brooks mentioned after Tuesday's game that Noah set the tone for the entire night with his energized play.
"Everybody's working hard," Noah said. "We've been working hard since the beginning of the year. A lot of ups and downs. We've just got to find a way to stick together through the good and the bad and know that we have a shot at this, and we can't take that for granted."
But this is where the real hurdles build up -- both mentally and physically -- for a short-handed team. The Bulls have to find a way to maintain poise as they wait for some of their top players to heal. How they fare in this regard will help determine how the rest of their seasons shakes out.
"That's the challenge," Dunleavy said. "That first game out after all the chaos has occurred, that first game is kind of the easiest because you know you're going to have emotion, you know you're going to have energy. But now we're going to have to settle in and play this role every night and hold down the fort for a few weeks. So that's the biggest challenge of it all, and we'll see what we can do."
"When it hit me was when I was checking into the game," Butler said. "It was great up until that point, then you check into the game and it's like, 'You're really here.' So that was the moment for me."
Butler played only nine minutes and scored six points as he continued to be limited by a right shoulder strain that kept him out of Thursday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Butler said he spoke to Eastern Conference head coach Mike Budenholzer before the game about limiting his minutes and acknowledged that his shoulder felt "all right" after playing for the first time in almost a week.
"I wish I was 100 percent healthy so I could do a lot more," Butler said. "But it was fun."
For a player whose career has been defined in large part by his defensive accomplishments, Butler admitted that it was tough to be in a game in which defense was looked down upon.
"A few of my guys was like, 'Yo, chill. Don't do all of that,'" Butler said. "So I couldn't be the player that I am."
The key for Butler is that having those defensive characteristics, combined with an improved offensive game, landed him on this platform in the first place. Bulls teammate Pau Gasol, a fellow All-Star, was happy to be part of Butler's first experience.
"I love Jimmy and to be able to share this moment with him was also special," Gasol said. "And I was happy to see him there and get his recognition because he's playing at a very, very high level. Well deserved. It's great, every All-Star for the first time lives it in a very unique way. It's great for him."
Aside from being with Gasol, Butler was happy to be paired alongside former teammate Kyle Korver again. The pair connected for an alley-oop in the second quarter and Butler said being with Korver brought "back memories again."
Now Butler must get ready for the second half of the season and get his shoulder back in order. He is confident he will be able to do so in advance of the Bulls next game against the Detroit Pistons on Feb. 20.
"I'll be ready to go," Butler said. "I got to go back to Chicago and get my stuff right. This break is for a reason, to rest your body and recover."
Pippen, who still works for the Bulls as an ambassador for the team, can't help but see the similarities between Butler's path to stardom and his own. When asked if he thought Butler could reach this high of a level -- playing amongst the game's elite Sunday night at Madison Square Garden -- Pippen, unlike many people around the league, says he isn't surprised.
"Yeah, I did because I kind of see Jimmy's career a lot like mine," Pippen said. "Everybody doubted him and he's sort of been put behind the eight ball to some degree and ... everything that he's earned in this league, he's had to work for it. I think that's been great for him because he's been what the team has needed the last couple of seasons. A guy that's out there working hard and just don't really give a heck. That's totally helped his development as a player and as an individual."
Any talk about Butler's elevation to star starts with his work ethic. It's what has defined his career. Butler has discussed many times this season about the work that he and his trainer, Chris Johnson, put in over the summer. Bulls officials marvel at the amount of time that the 25-year-old has put into his game over the last few years. That's why it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Butler discusses the one characteristic that got him to this point in his career, he remembers all those hours spent in the gym.
"Just how hard I play," he said, while discussing his defining All-Star characteristic.
But as Butler gets set to play on the biggest single game stage of his career, even he acknowledges that the journey from a rookie who barely played, to an All-Star who rarely comes off the floor, has come faster than even he could have imagined.
"Have I dreamed it? Yeah," Butler said recently. "Did I think it would happen this year? No. I was confident in the work that I've put in this summer, to where I'd be productive, but to say that I'd be an All-Star, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that if you had asked me over the summer, but a few people said that I would be."
To understand why people like Pippen, and selected others, aren't surprised by Butler's ascension, let's take a look at five of the biggest reasons why Butler has been able to take such a huge leap.
Butler knows exactly what his role is. Unlike in his first year and a half in the league when he was struggling to see the floor, Butler knows what to expect every night. He knows he will be asked to guard the opponent's best perimeter player and he knows he'll be asked to drive to the rim and be an offensive difference maker. Most importantly, he knows that no matter what he does, he isn't coming off the floor. He has earned the trust of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.
2. Playing with good players
Butler has been a beneficiary of the talent around him. He saw first hand the effort that Luol Deng poured into his game before he was dealt last season. Working alongside players like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and to a lesser extent, Derrick Rose has helped Butler improve each year. It also helps that none of those players ever wavered in their belief of him.
"They just always installed a lot of confidence in me to just play the way I know to play, play the way I play in practice," Butler said of Noah's and Rose's leadership. "They're our leaders, and more than that they're just good dudes. They want everybody to be successful."
3. Playing in the same system
Butler's role has grown organically over four seasons because of circumstances. When Deng got hurt two seasons ago, Butler's minutes expanded. When Deng got traded last season, Butler's game expanded and his role changed. The key is that he always knew what Thibodeau and the coaching staff expected from him. Unlike a lot of young players, he didn't have to deal with the upheaval of a coaching change or two in his formative years. As has been the case in the past, his hard-nosed demeanor helped endear him to Thibodeau and the rest of the Bulls' staff.
"When we talk, we talk like we've always talked," Butler's college coach at Marquette, Buzz Williams, said. "I think people are wanting there to be another part to the story and there's not another part to the story. That's who Jimmy is. And he's comfortable with who he is. He's confident in who he is. He knows that tomorrow he needs to work harder than he did today. And he's not caught up in the hype and the surrounding minutiae of what's going on. He's very simple and direct in his approach and I think that's one of the reasons why the Bulls' organization, why coach Thibs, why all of those people think so highly of him."
4. Coaching, and belief from within front office
Thibodeau and his staff deserve a large amount of credit for continuing to work with Butler on his game. They have helped him consistently get better from when he entered the league until now. Bulls GM Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson deserve credit for finding Butler at the end of the 2011 first round and keeping the faith that he would turn into a solid player despite the fact that Butler barely played in his rookie year. The nuturing of Butler's game, on and off the floor, has been crucial to his success.
It's the word that Butler has always come back to this season. He believes in himself more than ever before. He believes in his game more than ever before. That belief is what has made the difference for him and helped turn him into the player that he has become.
"[He's] more aggressive," Oklahoma City All-Star guard Russell Westbrook said. "With Derrick being out somebody had to find a way to step up and he's done that and now Derrick's back and he's still doing the same thing, so he's definitely expanded his game."
Butler has taken his opportunity and run with it. The rest of the league may not have always believed in his success, but he always knew it was possible. That's why he is enjoying this experience even more surrounded by family and close friends -- the people that always shared his belief most.
"I think opportunity is one thing that happened for him," Pippen said. "Given the fact that Derrick was out last year, I think that propelled Jimmy's growth and his development. I think he was able to evaluate that over the summer and prepare himself from a physical standpoint -- more so than anything is where I see where Jimmy has gotten better at. He's shooting the ball incredibly well, so it's all about opportunity and I think he's just been a guy that's taken advantage of it."
He cited a lack of "effort" and "communication" on defense on Wednesday, after a loss to the Houston Rockets, as the biggest reason the Bulls have struggled recently, having lost three straight and gone just 8-10 since Jan. 1.
Rose also acknowledged that it's been a while since the Bulls have been this frustrated.
"It's been a minute," Rose said. "It's been a long time, but it shouldn't be anywhere near that knowing how talented we are, knowing that guys want to really win. It's just that we didn't get things clicking yet. We got time, we just got to make sure we give it our all in practice, shootaround, and in the games and figure a way out."
The Bulls (30-20) are still hopeful that they will turn things around as they get set for their final 32 regular-season games. What do they need to fix, beginning with Saturday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans? Let's take a look at 11 of the biggest issues facing the Bulls in a season that started with championship expectations:
1. Lack of defense
If the Bulls don't turn it around and win a championship this season, the obituary will lead with their inability to play defense like they did in the first four seasons of Tom Thibodeau's tenure. The Bulls used to punch teams in the mouth during games. Now they are giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions, 13th-best in the league. That's 4.6 more per 100 possessions than last season, when they ranked second.
The Bulls have also given up 100 or more points in 25 games already this season. Last season, they gave up 100 or more in 16 games.
2. Lack of effort
Maybe more damning is the fact that the Bulls look lifeless through long stretches in games.
"It's a compilation of things," Thibodeau said, when asked why the intensity continues to disappear for stretches. "Where do you get your intensity from? You get it from your concentration and maximum effort. And how do you build that habit? You build it through repetition like you do through everything else. Practice is important. Practicing together is important. All those things are. Your meetings are important. Shootarounds are important. It's all important."
Thibodeau has repeatedly referenced practice, and repetition, as a big part of his team's struggles, but playing hard is just as important as skill. And the Bulls aren't performing up to their capabilities in this area.
3. Reliance on offense
When describing their woes, many players have talked openly about relying too much on offense. After lacking it over the past few seasons, especially when Rose has been out, the Bulls now have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive end. The Bulls are averaging 105 points per 100 possessions, just shy of their best in the Thibodeau era (105.7 in 2011-12).
"As I say, you can't shortcut the process," Thibodeau said. "The process is the whole thing. We got to put the work into it. We can't pick and choose when we're going to do things. The only way you can improve and execute is through repetition. You can't get around that."
4. Where's the fun?
Ask yourself this question: When was the last time you saw this group having fun on the floor together?
There hasn't been much to enjoy lately (5-10 over their past 15 games), but it also doesn't look like this group enjoys playing together as much as they used to. Have the players tuned out Thibodeau? If that were the case, the Bulls would just roll over on the veteran coach completely. They've still been able to get wins against good teams like San Antonio, Dallas and Golden State. But the argument could be made that they aren't listenting as intently as they did in years past, and bad losses to Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers in the past week and a half point to that.
Jimmy Butler has a simple theory as to how his team can start having fun again.
"Win," he said. "That's the fun part of this game is winning, bottom line, however you want to put it. We got to figure out a way to win games because whenever you're winning that's fun, whenever you're losing, that sucks."
5. Noah and Gasol don't mix
The Bulls already already 50 games into the season, and Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are not playing well together. They don't seem to know where to be when they are on the floor together, and the spacing -- on both ends -- is impaired because of it.
Gasol's personal numbers are up and he has admitted several times he feels rejuvenated in Chicago. But Noah's numbers are down and he doesn't look like the first-team All-NBA center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, he has been hurt much of the season and is still trying to find his form, but his incompatibility with Gasol is becoming more apparent. In the duo's 810 minutes together, the Bulls are 0.7 points per 100 possessions worse than their overall level of performance, according to NBA.com/stats.
6. Rose isn't the same
The good news for the Bulls is that Rose is healthy after missing most of November with various injuries. The bad news is that he hasn't shown to be the same player he was before his first knee injury in April 2012.
Rose is still knocking the rust off his game and holds firm to the belief there is another level he can get to this season. But he continues to settle for way too many jumpers and doesn't drive as much to the rim as he did in years past. The 26-year-old has already taken 223 3-pointers this season, the most he's ever had in 50 games during a season in his career, and has attempted 55.4 percent of his shots from outside the paint this season, according to ESPN Stats and Info -- the most in any season of his career.
After going 2-for-9 from beyond the arc in Wednesday's loss, Rose is now shooting just 29.6 percent from 3 on the season. He continues to say those are the shots that are given to him, but that doesn't always mean he should take them.
7. Mirotic is still a rookieNikola Mirotic has had some very good games and some very bad ones this season. In other words, he's a rookie. But the Bulls were relying on him to be a big part of their rotation. After a strong December, Mirotic has scored just 81 points over his past 15 games, an average of 5.4 points a game. What compounds the issue is that Thibodeau still doesn't trust Mirotic defensively, hence the lack of minutes in recent weeks for the soon-to-be 24-year-old.
8. Hinrich has lost a stepKirk Hinrich is one of the most respected players in the Bulls' locker room and is trusted implicitly by Thibodeau. But the 34-year-old guard is struggling this season. Aside from the fact that Hinrich is shooting just 36.5 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from the 3-point line, he looks a step slow defensively. The effort is there most nights, but the timing on the defensive end is not. His PER is just 7.11, the ninth-lowest rating in the league out of 345 qualifiers. He is averaging 27.3 minutes a game.
9. Snell and McDermott are not contributing
The Bulls' last two first-round picks are not giving them anything at the moment. They haven't exactly been given a chance by Thibodeau, but it's evident the head coach doesn't trust either player much on the floor right now, especially defensively.
Tony Snell has played at least 20 minutes in 10 games in the past month. In those 10 games, he is averaging 7.5 points a game. But since Jan. 1 there have also been four games in which he didn't play at all because of a coach's decision.
As for Doug McDermott, Thibodeau gave him some rotational minutes early in the season but he did not produce. He was getting open looks, but he didn't knock them down, shooting just 22.2 percent from beyond the arc in his first month. McDermott has played a grand total of two minutes since returning from a knee scope late last month. Thibodeau admitted Friday that there is a chance the Bulls may send McDermott to the D-League to get some more minutes after the All-Star break.
"We'll probably get to the break and then look at all the options from there," Thibodeau said. "I think the big thing, particularly with a rookie where he missed all that time, you still want to have your hands on him here and then if we feel like the playing time is a priority we'll go from there."
10. Injuries take a toll
Like every other team in the NBA, the Bulls have dealt with their share of injuries. Until the last week or so, Noah hadn't looked right physically after offseason knee surgery. Rose was in and out of the lineup in November because of various ailments. Gasol, Butler and Taj Gibson have missed a combined 15 games as well. Mike Dunleavy has missed 17 straight games because of a nagging right ankle injury.
All of these health-related problems are a factor, but this roster is too talented not to be able to overcome the hurdles. So often in Thibodeau's tenure, he and his players have viewed injuries more as a hurdle to clear. This season, all parties seem to be using the setbacks more as a crutch.
11. Thibodeau and the front office are at odds
The tension between Thibodeau and the Bulls' front office is at an all-time high. With all the speculation regarding Thibodeau's future in Chicago and the Bulls underperforming, Thibodeau, Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson are all feeling the heat. But the in-fighting and frustration behind the scenes isn't serving anyone well. The argument could be made that players don't care about the relationship between a coach and his front office, that it doesn't make a difference in regard to on-court performance. But it doesn't help either. To think that the players, and those in their inner-circles, aren't aware of what's going on behind the scenes would be naive at best.
As tough as it may be for them, Thibodeau, Forman and Paxson should come to a truce, at least until the end of the season. The trust may be broken forever, but it shouldn't impact the short-term future of the organization. Hard feelings should be pushed aside for the greater short-term goals of the team.
BOSTON -- Joakim Noah stood toward the back of the visitor's locker room in the TD Garden late Friday night with an embarrassed smile on his face. Noah, the emotional leader of the Chicago Bulls who sat out Friday night's 119-103 win over the Boston Celtics because of a sprained right ankle, earned a rare NBA distinction during the game. With 4:33 left in the third quarter of a tight game, Noah picked up a technical foul for arguing with the officials. After the game ended, he was taking some good-natured ribbing for his indiscretion.
"It got us going," he joked from the trainer's table.
While Noah will surely argue about how much his contribution mattered on the way back to Chicago, the reality for the Bulls is that they finally closed out a game the way a championship-caliber team is supposed to against a bad opponent. After watching his team lose four of its last five, including two homes games to poor teams such as the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic, the entire locker room operated with a sense of relief hovering over it after everything ended.
"We got to play like that for the whole game," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said of his team's fourth-quarter performance. "We play like that for 48 minutes, getting stops, teams won't score 90 points and damn sure won't score 100. I think it's going to always end up starting on the defensive end for us."
"We can be very dangerous," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "I think we all know that. It's just a matter of fact that it's on the defensive side. We can score all we want, but when we're allowing teams to get 100, 105 points every game it's going to be a tough game. Then if our shots aren't falling at the end, it could be a really tough game for us. So offensively we're not worried about that, defensively, that's our whole key right there."
As crucial as it is for the Bulls to play solid defense, it's just as important that their three primary scorers, Butler, Rose and Pau Gasol take over when needed late in games. That was the case Friday as the trio racked up a combined 71 points, 19 rebounds and 16 assists and seven steals (a career-high six from Butler). After struggling for the last few games to find a rhythm, Butler looked more aggressive and confident. Gasol was his usual steady self, and Rose made it a point to drive to the rim early and assert himself.
In a season full of ups and downs, Friday night's performance was one of the most complete of the season for Rose, who also knocked down five of his eight 3-point attempts and had 10 assists.
"It's good," Thibodeau said of having Rose, Butler and Gasol playing at a high level together. "It's nice to have those three back playing together. I think we've been a strong fourth-quarter team almost the entire year, minus this last lull over the past five games. We know they have the capability. I think what you're seeing is Derrick's getting stronger and stronger. I think he's gaining confidence. I think he's getting that competitive edge back. When you're out as long as he's been out you miss that part also. You're going against a great player, a great team, every night. So you can start to see [his momentum] is coming."
If the Bulls could get a healthy Noah back along with veteran shooter Mike Dunleavy, they'll be in even better shape down the stretch. But for now, they'll always have the laughs that came with Noah's "cashmere T" on Friday night.
It's not often a player earns a technical foul in a cashmere sweater, but after a much needed win, the Bulls can deal with it.
"That's Joakim," Rose said with a smile. "That's Jo, man. We're rolling with him. We understand him."
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls beat the Houston Rockets at their own game Monday night, and that should be a terrifying thought for the rest of the NBA.
They raced up and down the floor all night, going shot-for-shot with one of the best teams in the Western Conference, but they still managed to find ways to make key defensive stops when they needed them late.
"It shows the versatility of this ballclub," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "There's a lot of talent. I think we got stops when we needed to, and there's a lot of guys playing at a high level right now. It's just fun to be a part of."
Pau Gasol scored 18 of his 27 points in the first quarter and continues to provide the type of low-post threat the Bulls have been missing for years. Jimmy Butler continued his All-Star push in scoring 22 points and limiting the Rockets' James Harden, the NBA's leading scorer, in the second half.
The fact that the Bulls are doing all this while Derrick Rose continues to struggle with his shot makes the recent wins even more impressive.
"It just shows how resilient we are," Butler said of winning in different ways.
To put the offensive growth in perspective, the Bulls came into Monday's game averaging 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which is the most efficient they've been in the Thibs era, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
In 2012-13, the Bulls were 24th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. In 2013-14, they were 28th. The fact that they have jumped all the way to seventh shows how deep the roster has become with the play of Gasol, Butler and rookie Nikola Mirotic, who chipped in with 17 points Monday.
"It's big," Butler said of the Bulls' confidence in their offense. "Whenever we start locking teams down and then still being able to score, I think the game is going to be a lot easier. We don't have to worry about digging ourself a hole and getting out of it."
The Bulls are now averaging 103.1 points per game. That's almost 10 more a game than they've been averaging the past two years. They're also averaging 9.4 more points a game this season, compared to last year, which is the biggest leap in the league.
As happy as the Bulls are about the jump they've made, Noah doesn't want them to lose sight of the defensive culture, which has been created over the years by Thibodeau and the players.
"Don't say defensive mentality like that's a negative," Noah said. "It's important. You need to be able to play defense if you want to win big in this league. But you also need to be able to score, and this is definitely the best offensive team that I've been a part of in my NBA career. But that being said, just because we can score doesn't mean that defense isn't important or as important. It's just as important."
Defensive intensity is in this group's DNA. That's why the players realize they can be so much better once they start playing more consistent defense again. But Monday's game is another step in the progression of a special team. Over the years, they've had a handful of wins over Western Conference teams when they played this kind of pace and still won, but it didn't happen often.
"It feels great," Gasol said. "I like what we have. I like the way we're doing things. I like our potential. Our potential, I think, is incredible. But we just got to continue to work, not be content and, defensively, kind of demand more of ourselves ... I think we're doing great. We're showing great quality on the floor. We just got to keep it up. We got to keep working and staying locked in."
"Jimmy is, gosh, he should be up there in the MVP running," Howard said after Monday's shootaround, in advance of Monday's game against Butler and the Bulls.
The gregarious big man chuckled as he made his point, almost not believing it himself, but in many ways the response echoed the sentiments of many within the NBA. Butler averaged 13.1 points a game last season and comes into Monday's game averaging 21.9 points.
"He's playing great basketball," Howard said. "He's been one of the most consistent Bulls players all season. He's scoring, he's playing defense, he's making game winners, he's having an unbelievable season and it's like, where did he come from?
"But you can kind of see his progress over the years. When he first came into the league he was a little shy, really didn't do too much, but now it's like he wants that moment. He wants the ball he wants to be that guy. And he's doing it in the most unselfish way possible. He's not forcing any shots, he's giving the ball too the guys who are supposed to have it. But when it's time for him to get it, he does his thing. He rebounds, he runs the floor, he plays defense, he has a chance to be a really special player in this league."
James Harden, Howard's teammate, agreed with that assessment.
"He's gotten a lot better," Harden said of Butler. "I think offensively he's in attack mode. He's being aggressive, I'm sure his teammates have a lot of confidence in him in shooting the basketball and then getting to the rim. Defensively, he's always been active and a pretty good defender so he's playing very well right now."
Butler went through Monday's shootaround and is expected to play Monday night after missing Saturday's win over the Celtics while on bereavement leave.
Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler is back with the team after missing Saturday's game while on bereavement leave and also started.
Meanwhile, Bulls small forward Mike Dunleavy will not play against the Rockets. He suffered a right ankle injury during a Jan. 1 win over the Denver Nuggets and did not play against the Celtics. The good news for the Bulls is that Dunleavy is no longer wearing a walking boot.
"It's getting better," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
WASHINGTON -- This is the way things are supposed to work for the Chicago Bulls.
This is the way Gar Forman, John Paxson and Tom Thibodeau drew it up over the summer. Tuesday's 99-91 win over the Washington Wizards unfolded exactly how the Bulls' triumvirate envisioned. A deep Bulls' roster would build a lead heading into the fourth quarter against a quality opponent, and then Derrick Rose would shut things down late in the game.
Those visions have become realities for the Bulls over the past week, as they've put together one of the most impressive stretches in the past three years. Four wins in a row, the past three of which came against Memphis, Toronto and Washington -- teams that have a combined record of 62-22.
"It's real," Bulls center Joakim Noah said of the recent stretch. "Chicago Bulls are getting healthy. It's very real. We know that we're still not where we want to be. And we know the sky's the limit for our team. Our confidence is just getting better, and we're going to keep working, and we feel like we can even get better defensively. But it's all coming, and it's going to be a special year."
The frightening part for the rest of the league is, if the Bulls can somehow stay healthy and continue playing together, they are going to be even better a few months from now than they are right now. That's part of the reason the confidence Noah exudes right now is off the charts. The other reason is, for the second straight game, Rose put the Bulls on his back in the fourth quarter.
After scoring 15 of his 29 points in the fourth Monday night against the Raptors, Rose scored 10 of his 25 in the fourth Tuesday night against the Wizards. He's not all the way back to where he was before he tore the ACL in his left knee in April 2012, but this recent stretch is as close as he has been.
"He's stringing the games together, and so that's important," Thibodeau said. "He had the two games when he was sick, and then he's picked up right where he left off. The good thing was him working through the back-to-backs. It's been a step-by-step process. This is really the first time he's played really well in a back-to-back. He's been playing and playing pretty good minutes in the back-to-backs, and he's felt good, but you could tell his confidence is growing. He's feeling a lot better, and that's great."
What's also great for Thibodeau is the depth he has to work with on a nightly basis. Noah called this Bulls squad the most talented offensive team he's been on since being in Chicago. That point is underscored by the fact that Jimmy Butler, who had a rare off-night on Tuesday and went just 4-for-13 from the field, still has developed to the point that he's opened up space on the floor for Rose.
"Even with me with a live dribble, I know it's dangerous," Rose said. "So to see the attention going somewhere else or going so many places now, it's kind of new for me. A lot of people want me to score 30 points in the first half, [but] I don't have to. I can pick and choose when I want to score or try to change the game. And that's all I'm trying to do with this team."
The former MVP says teams still aren't doubling him, in part because of all the other options the Bulls have on the floor. Between Butler's ability to get to the rim, Pau Gasol's ability to score down on the blocks, Aaron Brooks' ability to penetrate and create his own shot and Nikola Mirotic's long-range jumper, the Bulls are dramatically different than the team that lost to the Wizards in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last season. Unlike in years past, Thibodeau's team has several weapons to go to on the floor when Rose isn't in rhythm, a credit to Forman and Paxson for creating a deeper roster in the offseason.
As usual with the Bulls, though, everything revolves around Rose. He's proving yet again that even after being out of the game for most of the past two years, he still has the rare ability to turn a game around -- or close one out -- by himself. He never doubted he would be able to do it again, despite all the fans and pundits who thought otherwise. He believes the Bulls are getting used to playing with one another again -- a fact proven in their recent play.
"Just having faith, man," Rose said of maintaining his confidence over the past two years. "I know how special I am as a player. I really feel like I was born to play this sport. I bring joy to people whenever I play. That's all I can say about it."
That's all he and the Bulls need to say right now. Their play is saying more than any other words could.
CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose doesn't fully grasp the impact he has on others. The 26-year-old still isn't comfortable with all the attention his game draws. But after scoring 15 of his team-high 29 points in the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bulls' impressive 129-120 comeback win over the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, the former MVP better get used to the accolades again.
Rose, who missed the past two contests because of an illness, has had some nice games over the first month and a half of the season, but none looked quite like this one.
Rose looked like his old self -- the player who took over games consistently -- before tearing the ACL in his left knee in April 2012.
"They were giving me my shot," Rose said of his late-game decisions. "I guess they'll learn. I guess the league will learn."
As much as Rose tried to downplay his night, the boost it gave to his teammates was undeniable. As Rose repeatedly took the ball down the floor and knocked down several jumpers and runners toward the rim, he quietly played it off as if nothing major were happening. But his teammates felt much differently.
Each time Rose sank another jumper or made another play at the rim, the smile on Joakim Noah's face seemed to grow wider. Rose wasn't just making baskets on Monday, he was offering a reminder on how good he and the Bulls can be when they're all healthy.
"It's great," Noah said of watching Rose. "It's good to have him back on the court. Derrick's been through a lot the last couple of years with injuries and just to see him out there competing, he looks like he's having fun playing basketball. It's great. I'm happy. It makes me happy."
Rose's play ignited the sellout crowd and fired up Noah and the rest of his teammates in the process. The Bulls always knew they could be great this season, but that feeling was contingent upon Rose coming back and being close to the same player he used to be. Now that he has shown that swagger and killer instinct late in games again, the confidence within the Bulls' locker room is higher than it has been in years.
"We know that we can always count on him and go to him," Jimmy Butler said. "And that's just the type of guy he is, he wants that pressure, and he produces. He produced. I think we're just going back to him and I think he's going to do the same thing every night."
If he does, and he stays healthy, the Bulls are going to be a scary team once the playoffs roll around. In the meantime, Rose knows that he must continue improving and sharpening his game for when it matters the most. Monday was just one more step in a long process for the humble star.
"I'm fortunate to have the teammates that I have," Rose said. "They really believe in me and they see how hard I work. It's hard being on a team like that, but I'm fortunate, I'm grateful, and I don't take it for granted."
Neither do his teammates. Especially when they see him playing like he did Monday night.
"You have to be ready for it," Thibodeau said. "It is unusual, but we have to deal with it. The important thing is just to get ready for the next game, whoever can play, just get out there and get the job done."
Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler believes he has played enough with Rose over the first part of the season that they'll know where the other will be on the floor. They didn't play much together in Butler's first three years in the league because of Rose's knee injuries and Butler's struggles to earn a place in Thibodeau's rotation during his first year and a half in Chicago. They have played in only 14 games together this season, as Rose has struggled with various injuries and Butler missed the first two games because of a thumb injury.
"I think we complement each other well in transition and getting out in the open floor," Butler said. "We'll get a lot of easy baskets together."
Butler comes into Monday's game having racked up 66 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and six steals in a combined 88 minutes over his past two games.
MEMPHIS -- Tom Thibodeau loves to say that every regular-season game counts the same. It's his mantra. He wants his team to play hard every night no matter the circumstances or the opponent. But after the Bulls' impressive 103-97 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night Joakim Noah didn't want to stick to Thibodeau's creed. The Bulls had just knocked off one of the best teams in the NBA -- a team that had toppled the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs on consecutive nights earlier in the week -- and they did so on the back end of a back-to-back playing without Derrick Rose [illness] and Taj Gibson [right ankle] for the second straight night.
Noah didn't buy into the notion that this was just another game, because the All-Star center knew that wasn't the prevailing thought in an excited Bulls' locker room. He knew that given the circumstances, and the opponent, this was the Bulls' best win of the season.
"I'm not Thibs," Noah said as he slipped on his shoes in front of his locker. "Are you kidding? I'm not Thibs. So just because he says something doesn't mean that I feel the same way about everything."
Noah and Thibodeau, the yin and yang that makes the Bulls go on most nights, could agree on this late Friday, no matter how the demanding coach wanted to term this game, the Bulls put together one of their most complete performances of the season against a red-hot Grizzlies squad. After a lackluster showing in Thursday's win over the New York Knicks, the Bulls responded with the type of defensive intensity that has become a Bulls' staple under Thibodeau. They also continued to ride the coattails of one of the hottest players in the NBA: Jimmy Butler.
For the second straight night, Butler put the Bulls on his back at times and displayed the type of offensive confidence that has come to define the first two months of his breakout season. Once an offensive liability, Butler has become the first offensive option on most nights for a Bulls team that remains in a state of limbo because of Rose's health.
In the span of 24 hours, Butler racked up 66 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, and six steals in a combined 88 minutes.
"Every time that game was hanging in the balance, he came through with a big play for us," Thibodeau said of Butler. "Clutch play after clutch play, great defense, no possessions off, plays with great intensity, great concentration, you can't say enough about what he does. To win on the road like this against a team like that -- and people are game-planning for him too -- but he's making the right play and that's the important thing."
Butler insists he's still just a role player playing on a great team, but his numbers say otherwise. Not only is he running away with the Most Improved Player Award right now, he's developing into one of the very best two-way players in the game.
Aside from Butler, the player the Bulls continued to look toward Friday was Nikola Mirotic. The rookie was 6-for-6 from beyond the arc and racked up a career-high 27 points. As much of a surprise as Butler's offensive maturation has been, Mirotic's play over the last couple of weeks has been almost as much of a revelation. He looks much more confident on the floor and grows more dangerous seemingly every game.
While the rest of the league may be surprised by Mirotic's ability, it doesn't come as a shock to many within the Bulls organization. They've also believed he was this good and now he has proven it in small doses. About the only thing Mirotic didn't connect with Friday night was a celebratory postgame handshake with Noah.
"A lot of times with shooters, they're one-dimensional," Noah said of Mirotic. "I think this guy's the real deal. And I think that he's just getting better every game and that's big for us. He just adds a whole different dimension."
There's one of the biggest differences for this Bulls team this season. After years of wondering where they would get consistent offense from other than Rose, Thibodeau's team has become more multi-dimensional than ever, especially on offense. Even little-used guard E'Twaun Moore hit two clutch free throws in the final seconds to help ice the game. Butler has become the kind of star force that the Bulls have been yearning for for years. Pau Gasol continues to play at an All-Star level while Noah said after the game this is the best he has felt physically all season after dealing with lingering knee and ankle issues.
The scariest part for the rest of the league is that the Bulls are going to be even better when Rose and Gibson return. But for now, Noah and his teammates will soak up the next couple of off days knowing they just pulled out a game that many didn't think they could win. Noah said he drew more motivation for Friday night's performance after Gasol told his teammates that this game against the team he started his NBA career with meant a lot to him.
"That was cool," Noah said. "I like that sentimental sh--."