With the Bulls trying their best to forget about Miami and look forward to Saturday's matinee in Dallas, a certain lineup merits further discussion.
Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng have started together just three times his season, but the results have been solid. It happened in the last two victories, against the Heat and Minnesota; and also in a 17-point win at Atlanta on Feb. 2 when the Bulls were missing Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
"We've used it all year," coach Tom Thibodeau said Friday at the Berto Center. "When you look back at the start of the year, there was always a four-minute stretch where Jimmy, Luol and Jo were on the floor together and defensively, they've always been very strong. Now offensively, they're starting to come around."
Before anyone attempts to argue Butler is the team's best option at shooting guard, Thibodeau shared some insight. He said when Butler and Deng play together, Deng is the two (shooting guard) and Butler the three (small forward).
Whatever the label, Butler seems to give the Bulls an extra burst of energy with the way he attacks loose balls, runs the floor relentlessly and delivers the occasional highlight dunk. His one-handed alley-oop, from Deng, over Miami's Chris Bosh on Wednesday was a nice boost at a point in the game when the Heat threatened to take command.
It helps that Butler is talented enough to guard either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Then in the fourth quarter, Deng and Butler combined to knock down 3 straight 3-point baskets to help end Miami's 27-game winning streak.
"He just keeps getting better and better," Thibodeau said of Butler. "He played a lot of minutes and made great hustle plays. Jimmy has a great demeanor and just gets out there and competes."
Two injured Bulls, Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) and Noah (plantar fasciitis) were active at Friday's practice. Both are considered game-time calls for the Dallas game, but Thibodeau suggested the Bulls might be cautious.
"Again, this is the time of year you want to make sure you're cleaning things up in terms of health," he said. "You don't want things to linger. You want him to get as healthy as possible."
Trying to compare Butler's performance as a starter against Belinelli or Richard Hamilton, currently out with a sore back, is tough because when Butler starts, he's always played heavy minutes. He's averaging 45 minutes per game in eight games as a starter and played all 48 against Memphis on Jan. 19.
So even though Butler has a better scoring average as a starter (15.5 ppg) than Belinelli (13.6) or Hamilton (10.2), when measured by minutes played, it's actually the lowest of the three.
Based on an average per 40 minutes, Hamilton is at 18.2 points, Belinelli 14.8 and Butler 13.8. Butler dominates the rebound category, though, with 8.3 per game as a starter and holds his own in assists.
There's no telling if Hamilton will play again this season and Belinelli will most likely start when he's healthy. Looking at the future, a Butler-Deng combo at the wings is definitely worth considering.
Hamilton probably won't return to the Bulls next season and Belinelli is questionable because he'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Deng and Butler are both under contract for next season.
Butler, Deng, Noah and Taj Gibson -- with either Kirk Hinrich or Derrick Rose at the point -- has a chance to be the league's best defensive lineup. If Butler keeps improving his offense, that group might be worth keeping together full-time.
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