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Bulls vs. Nuggets recap: Great Butler performance squandered as bench fails to defend

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Fred Hoiberg set the Bulls up to fail with some questionable lineup choices

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls fell to 9-6 for the season and 3-2 on the circus trip Tuesday night. After an impressive start to the annual West Coast run, I expected the Bulls to trounce the young and struggling Denver Nuggets. Despite getting off to a great start, the Bulls ultimately succumbed to the trend of the last decade and lost their tenth consecutive game in the thin Denver air.

Jimmy Butler stays amazing

There’s plenty of blame to go around in this disappointing loss, but none of it falls on the shoulders of Jimmy Butler. Jimmy followed up his 40 point performance against the Lakers with 35 points on 11/20 shooting Monday in Denver. Butler used his strength, athleticism and intelligence to draw tons of fouls and made 11/12 of his free throws.

Butler shot 2/4 from three point range. His second make was an impressive shot coming off an off-ball screen that tied the game with less than a minute left.

Butler rounded out his box score with eight rebounds, five assists and his first two blocks of the season (seriously, Jimmy had not blocked a shot yet this season).

What is so impressive about Butler this season is the way he imposes his will on the opposing defense. He seems so much more comfortable driving to the basket than in previous years, and he uses his refined handle and his physical style to force guys out of the way in the paint. He’s become remarkably good at getting to the spots on the floor he’s most comfortable shooting from.

My favorite Butler basket of the night came in the second quarter. Butler was being defended by Will Barton and established deep post position early in the shot clock. Before you could scream “Mouse in the house!” Butler had spun his way baseline for an easy score.

Head scratching lineup surrenders huge run

The Bulls took a 12 point lead into the second quarter that evaporated instantaneously. The Nuggets went on a 22 point run within the first four minutes of the period against a lineup that should never again see the light of day.

Isaiah Canaan, Dwayne Wade, Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic, and Bobby Portis was the unit Fred trotted for a stretch that Denver absolutely lit up to the surprise of no one. Portis and Mirotic provide no resistance at the rim. Wade and Valentine are not athletic enough to chase players around the perimeter, and Canaan’s physical limitations are what they are. This group could not contain rookie Jamal Murray who shot 6/8 in the quarter and on a few occasions out-ran the entire defense down the court for easy buckets.

I can sort of understand logic Hoiberg is using with this bench lineup: Give Wade minutes to dominate the ball, and dot the floor with shooters so the old man can herky-jerk drive his way to the basket. Unfortunately, the offense looked very discombobulated during this run and Wade settled for too many difficult contest jump shots. There was almost no ball movement.

You know what would have made a lot more sense? Swap out Portis for Cristiano Felicio, and suddenly this miserable lineup has an actual rim protector and a huge body to use in pick and roll with Wade. Felicio caught a DNP-CD in a close game and continues to mysteriously be totally out of the rotation.

Solid Rondo game

Rondo actually made some positive contributions in this game. He flirted with a triple double, scoring 13 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out eight assists. He shot 6/11 from the field and made 1 of his 2 three point attempts.

My favorite thing I saw from Rondo tonight were his three baskets scored on mid-range jumpshots. All three happened the same way: after going around a high screen, Rondo recognized the big man was dropped really deep into the paint. The wide open Rondo pulled up with no hesitation from about the free throw line and knocked down the shot. Even if that shot isn’t falling, just seeing him attempt it without his usual hesitation is a good sign, and hopefully will not prove to be an anomaly.

What does Valentine do?

Denzel Valentine played some of the least remarkable basketball I’ve ever seen. In 14 minutes, he was 0/1 from the field. He brought not energy to the game and was a participant in the second quarter defensive collapse.

Valentine has been neither the shooter nor the playmaker he was at Michigan State. It’s still far too early to declare the lottery pick a bust, but I think it’s time to see if RJ Hunter can give this team a few quality minutes. Valentine certainly isn’t providing that.