If Jimmy Butler is coming back, it surely means someone else is injured, right? Joakim Noah missed the Chicago Bulls win over the Charlotte Hornets to clinch a playoff spot, but the usual efficiency from Pau Gasol and another excellent performance from Nikola Mirotic made his absence a little less significant.
Mo Williams and Marvin Williams were hot from long range in the first half, but most of them were shots being contested. Luck changed for them in the second half, and the good defense from the Bulls started paying off. The Hornets shot just 34.6% from the field, hindered by Al Jefferson missing the entire second half after feeling some pain in his right knee; the team didn’t want to risk him.
The Bulls got Butler back after missing 11 games. He didn’t seem fatigued, but he was rusty, playing 40 minutes right out of the gate, scoring 19 points on 6-of-20 from the field, trying a bit too much to get the feeling of his jumper again instead of focusing on attacking the paint and getting to the line. He did hit 7-of-10 from the free throw line, but should have done a bit more inside the paint instead of checking to see if his elbow was working.
So the Bulls have 50% of their starting backcourt back, but the players carrying them through this tough stretch have been Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Gasol is an automatic double double this season, and he finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, including a big 3-pointer to end the third quarter to give the Bulls a five point lead they turned into a 98-86 win at the end of the night.
Mirotic finished with 28 points and 8 rebounds, but his basketball has been off the charts recently. He is averaging 21 points per game in March, which is probably not enough to win him rookie of the year, but is certainly showing how well he’s been able to adapt to playing in the NBA, showing a combination of long range shooting, the ability to hit step-backs and fade-aways while also delivering a crunching poster dunk or two.
Taj Gibson started instead of Joakim Noah, but the veteran big man has taken steps backwards in his career this season. He scored just 4 points and has become less and less useful for the Bulls offensively, although his defense is still very valuable, especially when Noah isn’t playing and the Bulls know they can’t rely on Gasol and Mirotic to clog the paint.
The Bulls haven’t been exactly scorching of late, but they’ve managed to hang on admirably through their annual run of injuries. With players coming back, Aaron Brooks is going to have an easier time managing his point guard duties and who knows, maybe the team won’t be in too much of a desperate shape when and if Derrick Rose comes back before the postseason.