Chicago Bulls coaches and players have been without both Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton, the team's second- and fourth-leading scorers, respectively, for extended stretches of this season. Deng had missed seven games in a row due to a torn ligament in his left wrist before returning to the lineup Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. Hamilton, who has been out the last four games and is sidelined indefinitely, has missed more contests (15) than he's played (11) overall because of a sore left groin and thigh injury.
However, injuries allow the next man up to get a chance to fill the void. For Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, players -- from John Lucas III to Brian Scalabrine to Mike James, who was released last week -- have been stepping up all season whenever they're needed. Case in point, Ronnie Brewer started just one game in 2010-11 but has started 18 of 26 games this season in place of either Hamilton or Deng.
While Bulls players absolutely dread seeing an ailing teammate or two have to sit out, one player has taken it as a silver lining for him to receive extended minutes to find his shooting stroke, which has been up and down through 26 games: Kyle Korver.
The veteran sharpshooter is averaging 13 points and four rebounds while shooting 48.2 percent (26-for-57) from the field and almost 44 percent (18-for-41) from three-point range in 31.7 minutes per game over his last six contests. In eight games prior to his current stretch he had missed 15-of-19 from beyond the arc. Taking advantage of extended minutes, the rhythm shooter is in the midst of his best basketball of the campaign, although he is shooting a career-low 78.6 percent from the free throw line.
Korver knocked down plenty of clutch shots a season ago during the regular- and postseason. He was a man whom the Bulls looked for late in games, and they know how dangerous he can be when he's feeling it. The eighth-year veteran is the best pure shooter on the team and someone whom Derrick Rose has lots of confidence in because the Bulls' point guard believes Korver has the ability to put teams away.
After hanging 16 points on the New York Knicks Thursday night, Korver dropped 18 while playing 28 minutes in Saturday night's 113-90 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks. He poured in 12 second-quarter points and shot 4-for-8 from three-point land for the game.
"I think the last few games, getting more time and some more shots, was good for me," Korver told reporters after the game. "You're not ever going to get back in rhythm unless you make some shots on the floor. So it was nice."
Obviously, the Bulls would much rather have every single player 100 percent healthy and able to play night in and night out. But that hasn't been the case in this injury-plagued, compressed, 66-game schedule.
Being able to play more during the absences of Hamilton and Deng could be a blessing in disguise for Korvers The Bulls understand the offensive presence he provides on a game-to-game basis. Korver also has dished out three assists in each of the last four games and made a sleek bounce pass to Joakim Noah for a two-handed dunk in the first half of Saturday's game.
"I think it's important because it keeps the defense honest," Noah said of Korver's shooting. "He demands a lot of respect out there and it opens the floor for everybody else."
Deng practices: Following a 21-point, nine-rebound outing against the Bucks, Deng participated fully in Sunday's practice and "feels good," according to Thibodeau. The reigning Coach of the Year was encouraged, along with Bulls fans, that Deng didn't report any setback and gave it a go one day after playing a game-high 41 minutes.
"He said he felt fine," Thibodeau told the assembled media. "... He's fine now. But if he has a problem, we'll deal with it then."
Deng, who is averaging 16.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, knows the injury will test his pain tolerance, but he will be on the court alongside his teammates as long as he's able to withstand the hurting. The Bulls clearly aren't the same, dynamic squad without Deng. The fact that he racked up heavy minutes Saturday and played almost the entire second half shouldn't surprise anyone given that he has a wrist, not lower body, injury, which he has been told he can't make worse by playing.
"It says a lot about him as a pro," Thibodeau said. "Luol has a lot of mental and physical toughness. He stayed in great shape, prepared himself well, was diligent with his rehab. He did all the things that you would expect a good pro to do. I think the fact that I saw how hard he was working on his conditioning, so I knew that part of it he would be fine."
Meanwhile, Rose reportedly participated in most of Sunday's practice. His back tightened up in the first quarter of Saturday's contest, when he was seen squatting on the court during game stoppages. He also spent time stretching on the bench in the second.
Afterward, Rose told reporters that his back is a short-term issue. Of course, he will play on Monday night against the New Jersey Nets.
Butler's growth: In a nationally televised game Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, Bulls rookie Jimmy Butler impressed his coaches and teammates and color commentator Reggie Miller, posting seven points and two steals in a season-high 21 minutes.
The 6-foot-7 swingman played all but nine seconds of the fourth quarter and effectively defended Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who shot 1-for-6 in the final frame. While Butler appeared hesitant on offense for most of the game, he connected on a critical, 13-foot jumper to give the Bulls a 101-96 lead with one minute, seven seconds left. Rose had the assist on that play, and the duo ran several pick-and-pop sets in the fourth.
The former Marquette standout made his homecoming on Saturday at the Bradley Center, scoring two points and grabbing three rebounds in nine minutes. Even when Butler wasn't receiving consistent minutes earlier in the season, Thibodeau raved about the team's lone rookie. Butler understands his role is to bring energy defensively whenever he's called on -- and the Bulls believe he will only get better as he piles up more minutes and experience.
"Jimmy's done a really good job, the way he approaches things, his attitude," Thibodeau told reporters Sunday. "And that's really the first step to becoming a pro, is learning how to be a pro. And he's handled that extremely well. Each game he's done better. He's eliminating some of the mistakes that he made earlier on. So you could see how serious he is with his approach. I think he'll just get better and better. He's learning the tendencies of the players that he's playing against; learning the tendencies of the teams. He's very serious, so we like what we see so far."
Lighter schedule: The Bulls have four games left on their season-long, nine-game road trip, with stops in New Jersey, New Orleans, Charlotte and Boston. The Nets, Hornets and Bobcats are all sub-.500 teams and have a combined 15-58 record as of Sunday, while the Celtics are 13-10 and have won eight of their last nine games.
Then, from Feb. 14-28, the Bulls play six consecutive games at the United Center, tied for their longest homestand of the season. The second six-game homestand begins March 5. For Chicago, which is 9-1 at home and a league-best 11-5 on the road, the lighter slate of games will bring a good opportunity to do some home cooking.
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