Butler carries Bulls to clutch victory over Hawks
After the Bulls maintained momentum in their playoff push by beating Atlanta on Saturday, Rajon Rondo offered a mix of insight and commentary about recent team practices.
"We've been having some great practices," Rondo said. "We've been very competitive in practice, more than we've been all year. Almost a couple fights. Me personally, I love it. That's intensity we need. We showed a little grit coming back (Saturday), we were down 10 with four minutes to go."
Actually, the Bulls were down 9 with five minutes left, but it was still an impressive comeback. Jimmy Butler tied the score on a driving bank shot with 32.9 seconds left, then hit a pair of go-ahead free throws with 2.1 seconds on the clock to give the Bulls a tense 106-104 victory at the United Center.
Butler finished with 33 points and Rondo added a season-high 25. The victory moved the Bulls (37-39) into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with six games left to play, and snapped a seven-game losing streak to Atlanta.
Now about those near-fights in practice, who exactly is starting those?
"I start them. I'm the instigator," Rondo said with his usual stone-faced expression. "So no punches were thrown. But we're competing at a high level now. And we hate to lose."
That was a helpful trait in this one since the Bulls went from a 10-point lead in the third quarter to a 91-81 deficit with 8:09 remaining. The Bulls' initial attempts at a comeback met with frustration, such as when the Hawks grabbed 3 offensive rebounds on the same possession and Ersan Ilyasova finished it with a 3-pointer. Atlanta led 100-91 with 4:54 left after a lay in by Dennis Schroder (29 points).
"I was telling everyone, just stay poised," Butler said. "Basketball is a game of runs. Eventually we are going to get some stops if we guard them the way we want to. We just have to rebound the basketball."
Rookie Denzel Valentine came up big, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 3. Butler's 3-pointer tied the score at 102-102 with 1:59 left. Butler scored 25 of his points after halftime and played the entire second half.
"What boosts Jimmy's confidence is when other people come along too," Valentine said. "He was hot and then he got tired and for a second there, nobody stepped up on the offensive end. So that's a lot of pressure on one person to do that in an NBA game. So I think as soon as other people stepped up, Jimmy gets confident again and wants to take it over."
Butler missed two shots to take the lead and Schroder's pullup jumper put Atlanta ahead 104-102 with 35.8 seconds left. The Bulls responded with a couple of good strategic moves.
After a timeout, the Bulls executed a play where Butler caught the inbounds pass on a curl toward the basket. It allowed him to tie the score with a bank shot and do it quickly enough that the Hawks couldn't run out the clock.
Atlanta made a living in the fourth quarter using screens to get Schroder switched onto Nikola Mirotic. After Butler tied the score, the Bulls sent Michael Carter-Williams onto the floor and he knocked the ball away from Schroder. The turnover set up Butler's winning free throws and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Mirotic's hot streak came to an end with 8 points, but he clearly drew added attention from the Hawks' defense, which helped open things for his teammates.
"I just want everyone to shoot when you are open," Butler said. "If not, pass it. Same goes for me. I love it whenever my teammates hit big shots because that is just giving them more and more confidence to take them when they are open."
The Bulls now control their own destiny in the playoff race after winning for the fifth time in seven games. They'll open a four-game Frozen Four road trip in New Orleans on Sunday. All six of the Bulls' remaining opponents are out of the playoff race.
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Bulls game dayBulls vs. New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center, 5 p.m. Sunday
TV: Comcast SportsNet
Radio: WLS 890-AM
Outlook: The Pelicans (33-43) will need a miracle to make the playoffs, but they have won eight of their last 11. DeMarcus Cousins scored 37 points against his former teammates Friday as New Orleans rolled over Sacramento 117-89. Cousins has averaged 23.9 points and 11.9 rebounds since being traded to the Pelicans, but Anthony Davis (27.8 points, 12.0 rebounds) is still New Orleans' top scorer. PG Jrue Holiday (15.6 ppg) has been healthy and the Pelicans have gotten a good return from late-season pickup Jordan Crawford (13.5 ppg). The Bulls have won five in a row against New Orleans, including 107-99 at the UC on Jan. 14.
Next: New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, 7 p.m.
-- Mike McGraw