Bulls/Bobcats last night brought plenty of yawns and probably was a lot closer than it should have been, but there was some excitement to be had with Nate Robinson's antics, Jimmy Butler's continued emergence as a damn good NBA player and a Carlos Boozer facial of Bismack Biyombo. And the Bulls did win, so that's obviously nice.
Considering he's the hot topic at the moment, I'm going to start with the play of Butler. Not only was his career-high 19 points scored in a variety of ways impressive, but perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that he played 31 minutes despite Luol Deng returning from injury. We all wondered what type of role Butler would see with Deng back in the lineup, and while Lu being smartly limited to 31 minutes himself contributed to Jimmy's increased time, we also saw plenty of the second-year man at the 2. I believe it was about 14-15 minutes in all, and he was pretty effective in that role, especially in the fourth quarter.
What was really interesting was that Butler was the first guard off the bench in the second half, checking in for a woefully ineffective Richard Hamilton with 5:35 left in the third quarter and playing nearly the rest of the game. Usually Marco Belinelli is the guy to come off the bench to replace Hamilton, and while that happened in the first half, it was Butler in the second.
The question now of course is whether this change in the rotation is permanent or at least happens on a consistent basis. Tom Thibodeau was quick to say in his postgame presser that Butler was the better option because of the Bobcats' bevy of quick guards. While that's true, it certainly seems natural to make this a more common occurrence.
Hamilton appears to be strictly on the Bogans Plan for now, and his play of late pretty much warrants it. I know some would like to see Rip shipped out to open the door for Jimmy in the starting lineup, but I still think the veteran has some value to the Bulls and should be kept around unless a really good deal that nets an upgrade somewhere can be found. It's unlikely Butler ever starts with Hamilton around, but who closes games is more important than who starts anyway.
As for Belinelli, he has sucked it up all season off the bench and pretty much deserves to have his minutes cut the way he's playing at the moment. Heading into last night's game, he was shooting 36.5 percent overall and 36.2 percent from three off the bench. If he truly can't be an effective player when he's not starting, there's little reason to play him over Butler or even a guy like Kirk Hinrich. Perhaps Belinelli will be more valuable when Rose returns to the lineup and he can help space the floor more, but right now, he's simply not providing much.
When Rose does come back and is finishing games again, the popular opinion seems to be that the Bulls should primarily go with a closing lineup of Rose/Butler/Deng/Gibson/Noah. On paper, that sure seems like a defensive juggernaut, and if Butler continues to progress offensively, perhaps not too shabby on that end as well. Whether it's a unit that can close playoff games against the likes of the Heat or anybody else remains to be seen, but it appears to be the Bulls' best option unless Belinelli gets his head out of his ass or Hinrich somehow makes that whole thing at the 2 work.
Something else also brought up in the comments of Matt's recap was how good the lineup of Hinrich/Butler/Deng/Gibson/Noah could be. That's a lineup that could potentially start second quarters with Rose back, and so far this season, it's been a wrecking ball. According to Basketball-Reference.com, that lineup is a +33.9 points per 100 possessions. As that's in just a shade under 48 minutes, the sample size is very small, but it's very encouraging.
I do have to point out that several other lineups with Butler at the 2 have not been all that successful this year, but that could also have something to do with different personnel on the court and the fact that some of those minutes came when he wasn't playing as well.
Bulls do better job limiting Bobcats' guards
One of the biggest issues in the ugly loss to the Bobcats on New Year's Eve was the fact that the Bulls allowed way too much dribble penetration by the Bobcats' guards. Kemba Walker, Ben Gordon, Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions all scored in double figures, combining for 64 of the Bobcats' 91 points on 53.3 percent shooting.
Last night the Bulls did a much better job limiting the clean looks of the Bobcats' guards, and a reason for that as noted on the broadcast (actual analysis, it does happen!) was increased aggression on the pick-and-roll defense by the Bulls' bigs. The Bulls attacked the ball-handlers a bit more than usual, not letting them get head starts into the lane or open jumpers off the screens. Joakim Noah was excellent on defense all night, attacking the pick-and-roll and defending the rim like an animal with five blocks and countless other alterations. The Bulls racked up 14 blocks as a team.
The Bobcats did actually score more points in the paint last night than on NYE (38-34), but the guards were much more inefficient with their own scoring. Walker, Gordon, Henderson and Sessions scored 53 points on the evening, but shot just 35.8 percent.
It was just another amazing defensive effort by the Bulls, who are giving up just 85.2 points per game over the last six.