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Three things we learned on Monday: Chicago is Jimmy Butler’s kind of team

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It felt like some NBA games were not as high scoring as the Rose Bowl, but there were eight games around the Association on Monday. While you settle into work for the short week, here’s what you missed from the NBA Monday.

1) If anyone still wondered whose team the Bulls were: Jimmy Butler drops 52 on Charlotte. Rajon Rondo has been relegated to towel waving reserve guard (finally). Dwyane Wade’s left knee is swelling up — yes, you’re right to be concerned Bulls fans — so he sat out Monday night.

That unleashed Jimmy Butler — and made us wonder what this team would have looked like if the front office had followed through on its pledge to actually get younger, more athletic players and build around Butler last summer. Butler had the ball in his hands more, and some extra space to operate. The results were he torched a good Charlotte Hornets defense for 52 points on just 24 shots, going 14-of-15 from the free throw lone, and scoring 17 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls came from behind to win. Just in case you wondered who the Bulls’ best player was, or who the cornerstone of the future is in Chicago.

Butler did most of his damage coming off the pick-and-roll, then either getting into the paint or — more efficiently on this night — knocking down midrange jumpers from the elbow area. He also dished out six assists on the night — to be clear, he ran the P&R more effectively than Rondo has for the team. Nearly half of Butler’s possessions in this game came as the ball handler using those high picks. The Hornets — Nicolas Batum in particular — defended him fairly well but Butler was having one of those nights: he was 9-of-14 on contested shots, according to NBA.com.

There was a lot more to like about the Bulls on this night. With Wade out Doug McDermott got the start and the Bulls adjusted to how teams have covered him with guards (because he lived on the perimeter) and fed him some in the post. Denzel Valentine is getting some more run with Rondo on the bench, and he looked good in the first half (he rolled his ankle in the third and did not return). And the Bulls played better defense on Kemba Walker (27 points, he’s still killing it) and the Hornets late to get the win. The kind of win the Bulls need to hang on to a playoff slot (they are currently the eight seed).

The Bulls don’t need Rondo to win. They will need Wade come the playoffs, but this team can win while his knees get rest. The Bulls showed they could do it for a night, but now they have to try to carry it over against the Cavaliers and Raptors the rest of this week.

2) Bucks keep picking up good wins, like Monday over Oklahoma City. There are three teams in the NBA with a top 10 offensive and defensive rating, usually the sign of a contender: Golden State, San Antonio, and Utah.  The two surprises? Cleveland not being there (the Cavs defense is 14th in the league on the season, they have a malaise on that end at times but because they’re in the East it doesn’t hurt them), and that the Bucks were there until Monday — they fell to 11th on defense. The Bucks are legitimately good, while they may be 17-14 they have the point differential of a 19-12 team.

The Thunder are where they are this season because of Russell Westbrook, good rebounding, and a stout defense. The Thunder took that three-legged approach into Milwaukee on Monday. The Bucks had no good answer for the Westbrook question (does anyone?), he had 30 points but on 9-of-28 shooting. But the Bucks held their own on the boards (just one fewer rebound) and they went right at the heart of that defense — Milwaukee scored at will in the paint, to the tune of 54 points there. Led by 26 points on 19 shots from Giannis Antetokounmpo, he was 7-of-10 in the paint. Plus he was doing things like this:

The Bucks are not a threat to Cleveland, or likely even Toronto, at the top of the East. But this is a team on the rise playing well at both ends, and if they continue on this arc they will be a tough out come the playoffs.

3) Losers of five in a row, the Knicks have issues. Short term and long term. The Knicks felt like they hit rock bottom Monday night — an Orlando Magic team they ripped a couple of weeks ago returned the favor, shredding a bad defense for 115 points, led by 23 from Jodie Meeks (Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka each had 22).

New York is banged up, no Kristaps Porzingis is the big one (he has had to carry a heavy load this season, maybe too heavy for a physically still growing/changing player, they need to be careful with his Achilles soreness). There was no Joakim Noah, and they really do miss David Lee. But neither of those latter two are shoring up the defense — it was a game where the Knicks broadcast team was pointing out Carmelo Anthony‘s lack of defensive effort. They easily could have done the same thing for Derrick Rose. How bad was the Knicks defense? Coach Jeff Hornacek said this postgame:

“I don’t think our guys aren’t trying — maybe they’re not capable… Maybe play some other guys and mix the lineup somehow. We have to find someone to play some defense.”

When the coach is calling out a team’s effort — and he also questioned their toughness — things are bad. And Hornacek may have waited too long to do it. The good news is for all their flaws and problems, the Knicks are just half a game out of the playoffs in the East. Get healthy, get on a run and they can make it.

But the flaws in this roster showing up midseason lead to bigger questions about the future — what is the long-term plan? Signing Rose and Noah this summer signaled a win-now mentality — except they are not winning, they are 16-18. This team needed to be torn down and rebuilt years ago, but nobody had the cojones to do that in New York for some reason. The Knicks got lucky and Porzingis fell to them in the draft, but beyond that the rest of the guys they are spending on for years to come — Anthony and Noah — are not part of the long-term future. Rose has played okay, but are they going to re-sign a guy well past his prime?

What is the plan in New York? It’s hard to see one that looks to a Porzingis-led future.

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.