Jimmy Butler had another outstanding night for the Bulls as they overcame the absence of Derrick Rose (and Pau Gasol) and a 14-point deficit late in the second quarter to upset the Clippers 105-89 in the first game of the team's annual Circus Trip out west.
Jimmy Butler saves the day
It was once again the Jimmy Butler show for the Bulls, as he posted team-highs of 22 points and 8 assists while also contributing six rebounds and a pair of steals. He struggled a bit from the field, hitting only 6/17 shot attempts (1/4 on 3's), but he made up for it by getting to the free throw line 10 times, making nine of them.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers noticed that he was watching the Jimmy Butler show as well - in the game's final minutes, when the Clips needed points quickly, Doc had Jamal Crawford and J.J.Redick on the floor for their shooting. But he had to pull Redick and replace him with Matt Barnes down the stretch because Butler was just abusing J.J. or Jamal in the low post on offense.
Nobody should be surprised when they see Jimmy Butler on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster as he pushed his season averages to 21.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. Right now he's a lock for the NBA's Most Improved Player award, and he's still playing defense at an All-NBA level.
He's getting to the free throw line at an incredible rate so far, shooting an average of eight a night. He's at 37% on 3-point attempts and shooting three a game on average. If he keeps this up, you could easily see the name Jimmy Butler next to the "SG" on the All-NBA Third Team. He's been that good, folks.
Nikola Mirotic again plays well when he plays
With Gasol sitting out the game with a slight calf strain (Thibodeau says Pau is day-to-day), we all knew Nikola Mirotic was finally going to get some minutes as the team's third big man - and the Montenegrin did not disappoint.
Niko drilled a 3 on his first shot attempt, he had a couple of very nice passes off the dribble, and he also had a couple of outstanding moves to the basket which he finished with layups. He still only played 18 minutes as Taj played 41 and Noah 36, but he gave the Bulls 12 points on 5/10 shooting while also grabbing 7 rebounds. And the Bulls needed those rebounds as Taj had another Eddy Curry night on the boards, grabbing only four defensive rebounds in his 41 minutes.
Niko still struggles some on defensive rotations, but the Clipper announcers noticed what all the intelligent Bulls fans have seen - Niko has mad talent on the offensive end of the floor.
The entire starting lineup played well
Joakim Noah contined to look better by the night as he rounds into shape - tonight he gave the team 11 points, 16 rebounds and 6 assists. Jo is averaging 10.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists over his last five games, and he is getting back to his active self as his knee keeps getting better.
Gibson his 9/13 shots for 20 points starting in Gasol's place, and he actually found it within himself to pass the ball tonight as he had six assists (he only had 12 assists total in his first nine games). Unfortunately he continued his apathetic work on the defensive glass, but at least his continued offensive efficiency is keeping his trade value pretty high.
Dunleavy hit 6/10 shots (4/7 3's) and had the most quiet 19 points I have seen in a long time. MDJ is now at 40.4% from behind the arc, shooting more than five a game on average. If he can keep draining 3's at that rate and playing his usual smart game, he will be invaluable as the season goes on.
Even the much-maligned Kirk Hinrich had a very nice game, hitting 4/6 three-pointers to score 14 points on 12 shots while adding five assists and three steals. He also did an outstanding job of helping to keep Chris Paul in check as the Clips' PG only had 12 points (5/11 FG) and 7 assists even though he played over 37 minutes.
The game looked like it was over early
Even though the Bulls played good defense early and actually led by three after the first 12:00, the Clips slowly built the lead over the course of the second quarter, going up 46-32 on Paul's 20-footer with 3:44 left. But the Bulls clamped down on defense, allowing only four more points the rest of the half while hitting six of nine from the field to cut the lead to 50-48 at intermission.
The Bulls came out of the locker room looking like a different team, and a pair of Hinrich 3's with a 20-footer from Noah in the middle gave the team a 56-53 lead. They would never trail again, outscoring the home team 31-14 in the third quarter as part of a 49-18 run over a 16:53 stretch.
The biggest difference - in addition to the defense - was the 3-point shooting. After a 1/9 2nd quarter led to a 4/15 first half, the Bulls hit 6/11 from the behind the arc in the second half, almost entirely on wide-open looks as the ball movement was as good as I've seen them show all season.
16 assists on 22 second-half field goals shows exactly how outstanding the ball movement was after halftime.
Hopefully the Bulls will continue to sit Rose and Gasol on the Circus Trip until they lose a game. I would hope that Mirotic and McDermott get more than the 18 and 10 minutes of playing time they got tonight if that's the case - but at least the Bulls don't play again until Thursday night in Sacramento, so the big minutes tonight (Butler 45, Gibson 41, Noah 36) shouldn't be a problem going forward.