Jimmy Butler Returns as Chicago Bulls Start Playoff Push

Chicago Bulls vs Miami Heat - Game OneThey playoff push is in full effect now for the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been an ugly season for Chicago, and it got even worse when Butler was sidelined with a knee strain. The Bulls went 3-8 without their star 2-guard, getting outscored by about eight points per game.

Jimmy Butler (24 PTS, 11 REB) helped the Bulls’ offense get back into a bit of a rhythm in their 108-100 victory over the Houston Rockets. Ball movement was crisp as the team had 28 assists, the highlight of them all being the classic Pau Gasol-to-Butler alley-oop. This was just the 10th time the Bulls have had 25-plus assists over the last 27 games.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg praised his returning star shooting guard, per the Chicago Tribune:

Obviously you see the impact Jimmy has just because of his ability to make life difficult for elite wing players in this league. When he got in foul trouble, you saw Harden go off a bit. Offensively, he can flat out get you a basket and get to the line and get you easy points.

Chicago was also getting out on the open floor consistently, something Butler plays a big part in. Whether it’s through his defense or just his ability to run and finish, Butler helps create opportunities in the open court. The Bulls finished with a 24-19 advantage in fastbreak points.

Welcoming Butler back was bearded scoring machine James Harden, who went off for 36 points on 10-for-26 shooting. Still, Butler was on top of him all night, forcing Harden to take tough shots.

More importantly, the one area of the defense that should improve going forward is the Bulls’ pick-and-roll defense. The guards play just as big a role in defending it as the bigs, and Butler is a much better defender than E’Twaun Moore, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell.

Nikola Mirotic also made his return to the hardwood after missing 16 games due to an appendectomy. The sophomore stretch 4 finished with seven points in 15 minutes, making two of his three attempts from downtown. As he regains his rhythm, his presence on the court should help Chicago’s offense. He’s always been great at stretching the floor, but he can also attack most defenders off the dribble with his explosive first step.

Derrick Rose continued his strong and aggressive play, scoring 17 points with nine assists on 60 percent shooting. With Butler back, Rose didn’t have to take as many shots as he had someone to defer to. Rose has now strung six games with a field-goal percentage of 50 or higher, the first time ever in his career.

This win put the Bulls (31-30) back in the eighth seed, a half game up on the Detroit Pistons (31-31). Chicago has a tough remaining schedule, though, meeting with the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others.

It’s definitely too soon to tell whether Butler and Mirotic’s return to the lineup will take the Bulls to a new level, but they’re clearly a better, more effective team with them.

Recent Bright Spots

Moore was incredible over the month of February, averaging 13 points per game and starting all 12 games. He’s become a regular part of the rotation, and his shooting has improved (over 40 percent from three). With Aaron Brooks not showing much over the last few games, Moore has earned the No. 2 spot behind Rose.

McDermott has also been great over the last couple of weeks. The sophomore forward averaged 14.4 points off the bench, shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. His off-ball movement has been impressive, as well as his emphatic dunks and drives to the rim. McDermott is looking more and more comfortable driving the ball, and has found a nice touch on his quick-release floater.

Also worth noting is Justin Holiday taking Snell’s spot in the rotation. Holiday played more minutes against the Orlando Magic on March 3rd (27 to 19), and played four minutes Saturday night against the Rockets while Snell failed to step on the court.

It might not look like much much, but Holiday has won Hoiberg over. He’s shown the ability to defend and knock down the occasional three. His 6’6″ frame makes him a great combo guard, which allows him to defend point guards, 2s and some 3s.

The Bulls roster is talented and very well-rounded. It’s now just a matter of putting everything together over the last 21 games.