Rip Hamilton finally returned after a 19-game absence due to a bulging disc in his back. This was a rather unexpected development considering Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Hamilton was “not real close” to a comeback just last Friday. As it turned out, Hamilton’s surprise return was one of the few things that went right for the Bulls last night.
Other things that went right included Carlos Boozer’s near triple-double (19 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists) and Jimmy Butler’s coming out party (48 minutes, 28 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals). Simply put, Butler was on fire, shooting 10-f0r-12 from the field, 3-for-3 from three-point range and 5-for-6 from the free throw line.
Past that, I suppose you could mention Nate Robinson’s fourth quarter scoring explosion that nearly helped the Bulls rally for a comeback win. The key word being “nearly.”
Instead, the Bulls suffered another curious and frustrating home loss to a lousy team. Prior to this, they had also lost home games to the Bobcats, Cavaliers, Hornets and Suns, all of whom have a date with the upcoming NBA draft lottery. Given that the Bulls (42-35) are now three games behind the Brooklyn Nets (45-32) for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and just a half-game ahead of the sixth-place Atlanta Hawks (42-36), those losses are a very big deal.
I suppose not much else could have been expected last night. After all, despite Hamilton’s return, the Bulls were still without Derrick Rose (left knee rehab), Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis in the right foot), Luol Deng (sore hip) and Taj Gibson (sprained left knee). That group includes a superstar (Rose) and two All-Stars (Deng and Noah). It also includes three of the team’s best defenders (Deng, Gibson, Noah).
That latter part may help explain why the Raptors — who rank only 17th in Offensive Efficiency at 102.5 points per 100 possessions — shot better than 51 percent and scored at a rate of 116.1 points per 100 possessions last night (per Basketball-Reference).
With Gibson and Noah out of action, you would assume the problem was interior defense, but it wasn’t. The Raptors attempted only 12 shots at the rim…22 fewer than the Bulls had (per Hoopdata). But Toronto went 7-for-7 from 3-9 feet, 5-for-7 from 10-15 feet, 10-for-24 from 16-23 feet and 7-for-18 from three-point range.
This isn’t standard behavior for the Raptors. On the season, they rank 22nd in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) and 26th in three-point percentage (33.9 percent).
Chicago’s defense had a lot of trouble locating DeMar DeRozen, who scored a team-high 20 points by going 1-for-1 at the rim, 1-for-1 from 3-9 feet, 2-for-2 from 10-15 feet and 4-for-7 from 16-23 feet. Amir Johnson (13 points, 5-f0r-8, 11 rebunds) also had his way. Ditto for Kyle Lowry (13 points, 10 assists, 2 steals). Rudy Gay added 19 points and Terrence Ross came off the bench to score 13, for a total of five Raptors in double figures.
It was just that kind of night.
Of course, the Bulls didn’t do themselves any favors by falling behind 18-3 less than six minutes into the game. Chicago’s offense — which ranks a lowly 24th in Offensive Efficiency at just over 100 points per 100 possessions — tends to come and go in spurts. And slow starts are often damning.
Said Butler: “We dug ourselves a huge hole at the beginning of the game. It’s hard to claw out of those holes.”
Thanks to Robinson’s fourth quarter eruption, the Bulls made the Raptors sweat out this win, which Lowry said was something his team could build on, although you have to wonder what a 30-48 team can build with only five games left in their season.
It was something of a crazy finish, too. The Bulls were down 101-97 with 10 seconds left with Robinson at the line for a couple free throws. Nate hit the first but missed the second. There was a scramble for the rebound that ended with Robinson seemingly saving the ball from going out of bounds and throwing it to a waiting (and wide open) Kirk Hinrich at the three-point line. Unfortunately, the officials blew a whistle, although they weren’t sure why exactly.
After a video review, the refs called a jump ball between Boozer and Gay. Neither player was able to win the jump, but Boozer was able to rip away the loose ball and threw it back to Robinson, who couldn’t handle the pass. Nate barely managed to save the ball from going into the backcourt before heaving up a 41-foot desperation shot at the buzzer.
It wasn’t even close.
Said Robinson: “I took my eyes off the ball. I saw Kirk to my left wide open. When Booz threw me the ball he threw it kind of fast and I was in pass motion to throw it to Kirk and I took my eyes off of it.”
These are the things that happen when your margin for error is basically nil.
The one nugget of hope I took away from this game was the play of Butler and what it could mean for the future. ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell touched on this topic too: Butler could be the long sought after answer to Chicago’s shooting guard quandary.
This issue has dogged the Bulls for years. Even back when Ben Gordon was scoring 20 points per game, the Bulls were looking for someone like Butler (which is why they acquired Thabo Sefolosha on draft day back in 2006). A long, strong, durable two guard who can defend like an animal and provide scoring in a variety of ways.
Rip Hamilton has been a bust and probably won’t be back next season. Marco Belinelli has shown glimpses here and there, but he’s a free agent this summer and who knows how that’s going to turn out. And Butler has shown more potential than Belinelli anyway.
In 15 games as a starter this season, Butler is averaging 15.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 46 percent from the field and 42 percent on threes. His shooting is still spotty and inconsistent, but his defense and hustle more than make up for it. Plus he rebounds like a small forward, which is a real luxury.
If Butler could maintain that level of play as a full time starter, just imagine a starting backcourt of Rose and Butler. The speed. The athleticism. That would be a truly dynamic duo.
Said Butler: “It brings a smile to my face, obviously. But I try not to get too caught up in the future because it’s not promised. You never know what could happen. Right now I live for the moment and I praise every moment that I’m given because it’s a blessing. But knowing that they want me to be here alongside Derrick, [Luol Deng], and all these other guys, that makes me smile.”
It could be making Bulls fans smile a lot the next few seasons too.
Still, this season isn’t over yet, which isn’t lost any anyone, much less Butler.
Said Butler: “The future? Hell, tomorrow’s not even promised, not to even think (about) next season. We’ll just keep going right now, keep winning these games and go into the playoffs.”
And what happens come playoff time is anybody’s guess.