Don’t look now, but the Bulls have not lost since the day after Christmas. That’s five wins in a row, including tonight’s 117-106 win over the Milwaukee Bucks at the United Center. This run puts them at 21-12 and 2.5 games behind Cleveland in the Eastern Conference. This year’s team has felt much like one that is working to find it’s identity, and it seems like it’s coming down to a changing of the guard, so to speak. I would normally resist such a cliche, but it works in this case, as it is increasingly apparent that this is probably Jimmy Butler’s team. Our own Jacob Bikshorn wrote on this topic just a couple of days before Butler’s record setting 40 point second half on Sunday afternoon.
Butler continued this dominance against the Bucks, extending his streak to 41 straight games with a steal, as well as leading the team in scoring with 32 points. What was perhaps even more impressive though was the team-leading 10 assists. He had just two turnovers (Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol combined for nine). As the season moves toward its second half, I am convinced that the Bulls will rise and fall with Jimmy Butler. Not long ago, on a relatively rare off night for Butler, the bench picked him up, but generally speaking the Bulls need Butler to be the kind of player he has been the last two games particularly. Butler currently has a PER of 21.3. The only regular player who tops this is Gasol at 22, and no one else comes all that close.
Bobby Portis has worked in recent weeks to earn more and more minutes on the floor, and while tonight may not have been his strongest recent outing, he added eight points and eight rebounds. Portis has a PER of 17.1, which is third in team ranking, but it is worth mentioning that his total minutes are still much, much lower than a lot of other guys on the team. I do think that Portis needs to stay on the floor for at least 20 minutes a night when he’s not a starter, but with increased minutes, we may see some of these numbers come to earth a bit.
I was perhaps a little hard on Pau Gasol in my last game recap, so I feel like I should acknowledge the night he had as well. He and Taj Gibson looked good in the post early in the game, and Gasol put together just a completely solid night. His 10 defensive rebounds and five assists were the icing on top of 26 points. As I mentioned earlier, he did contribute for a number of the team’s turnovers, but his aggressiveness in the post and on the boards contributed to some of this, so it is not entirely a bad thing. I’m probably still not ready to trust Gasol to do this on a regular basis, so I want to see more of Portis on the floor as the season progresses.
The Bulls were perfect from the free throw line. Though my personal experience as a basketball player was quite limited (hey, I watched a lot of games in high school from the best seats in the house, if you know what I mean), one of the most basic axioms of my years of attempting to play the sport at least passably enough that I didn’t embarrass myself was that if you can draw fouls and then make your free throws, then that is an immense value added. The Bulls shot 20 free throws tonight and made all of them, and though the Bucks shot well, they had 14 chances at the line, and made just eight of those. That’s a 12 point difference, and if you look at the final score, you don’t have to think too carefully to see how much that matters in the game’s outcome. The team shoots well from the stripe as a whole, at just under 77%.
I was a big fan of Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker as he came into the league, but he’s not putting together a particularly strong season. In fact, he’s had some pretty rough nights, and tonight was probably one of his weaker outings. He was just 5/12 from the field and did not have a single assist. His +/- for the night was -21, which he has only topped once during the season, about a month ago against the Clippers. His NBA experience is so limited, however, that I don’t want to rush to any judgment about him based on just 55 career games thus far.
Coming up: the Bulls will be looking to win their sixth in a row against the Celtics on Thursday.