Jimmy Butler lifts Bulls to 104-103 victory over Celtics (VIDEO)

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CHICAGO (AP) Jimmy Butler and Isaiah Thomas should have plenty to talk about when they see each other in New Orleans this weekend.

Butler made two free throws with 0.9 seconds left, sending the Chicago Bulls to a 104-103 victory over Thomas and the Boston Celtics on Thursday night.

Butler’s clutch foul shots capped a memorable duel with fellow All-Star Thomas in the NBA’s final game before the break. Butler and Thomas both finished with 29 points and seven assists.

Butler was touched on the right elbow by Marcus Smart on a turnaround jumper as the horn sounded, drawing a foul. Butler calmly patted his elbow and then walked toward the line while an incredulous Smart danced up the court in disbelief.

“He got a piece of the elbow,” Butler said. “People are going to say `Aw, he didn’t foul him,’ but he did. So at the end of the day they made the right call.”

Said Thomas: “That’s horrible when it costs you a game you should have won. That’s a bad call.”

After Butler’s free throws, Al Horford air-balled a baseline jumper on the Celtics’ last shot, giving Chicago (28-29) consecutive wins against Eastern Conference powers Toronto and Boston (37-20).

“I’m excited about these two wins over two very good teams,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Hopefully, we can build off of these coming back off the break.”

Bobby Portis had a season-high 19 points for the Bulls, who went 22 for 22 at the line. Robin Lopez had 15 points and eight rebounds, and Taj Gibson finished with 12 points and nine boards.

“It’s big for us. It’s going to propel us to the second half of the season, which our team really needs,” Portis said.

Thomas went 8 for 18 from the field in his 41st straight game with at least 20 points, breaking the team record set by John Havlicek during the 1971-72 season. He made two free throws with 1:30 left to make it 103-100, but he was blocked by Butler on a layup attempt and missed a jumper down the stretch.

Boston also was outrebounded 51-31, leading to a 22-4 deficit in second-chance points.

“They were bigger than us at almost every position and then we didn’t do a good job running down balls. So rebounding was an issue,” coach Brad Stevens said.

Kelly Olynyk had 17 points and seven boards for the Celtics, who had won four in a row and 11 of 12. Terry Rozier made three 3-pointers and finished with 11 points.

The Bulls played without guard Dwyane Wade and forward Paul Zipser due to injuries. Wade has been hampered by a bruised right wrist, and woke up Thursday with an illness. Zipser is dealing with left ankle tendinitis.

The break will give the 35-year-old Wade a couple weeks of rest between games.

“It’ll be two full weeks since he had the wrist injury, so again, hopefully we’ll get him back full strength when we return,” Hoiberg said.

Avery Bradley remained out for Boston, and rookie forward Jaylen Brown missed his third straight game with a right hip strain. Bradley, who is averaging 17.7 points, hasn’t played in a month because of a sore right Achilles.

FROM DEEP

Boston made 10 of its 14 3-point attempts on its way to a 58-52 halftime lead. The Celtics have made 10-plus 3s in 15 consecutive games.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Amir Johnson scored all of his 10 points in the first quarter. … Boston has dropped two of three against Chicago. They close out the season series on March 12 in Boston.

Bulls: PG Rajon Rondo rolled his left ankle in the second quarter, but returned to the game in the third. … Hoiberg said Nikola Mirotic (back spasms) was available before the game, but the 6-foot-10 forward did not play.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Toronto Raptors next Friday night. Boston has dropped two of three against Toronto this season.

Bulls: Host the Phoenix Suns next Friday night. Chicago lost 115-97 at Phoenix last Friday night.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.