Kurt Helin

Associated Press

Jimmy Butler expected to return to Bulls lineup Saturday

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Injuries, combined with poor defense and a roster that doesn’t fit the new coach’s style, have the Bulls on the outside looking in at the playoffs as of this writing.

One of those problems is getting better; the Bulls are getting some guys healthy again. Derrick Rose is back from his hamstring tendonitis, and Jimmy Butler should be back in the rotation on Saturday, reports Vincent Goodwill at CSNChicago.com.

The Bulls will get their best player back Saturday, as Jimmy Butler will return to the team’s lineup against the Houston Rockets, in a game that could see the Bulls fall below the .500 mark with a loss.

Butler has missed the last 11 games with a left knee strain, and will officially practice with the team tomorrow, where coach Fred Hoiberg will likely be cautiously optimistic about Butler’s status.

The Bulls have gone 3-8 in those 11 games Butler has been out, and with that have slid half a game out of the last playoff spot in the East.

The Bulls are 3.2 points per 100 possessions better when Butler is on the court, and he brings improvement at both ends. He is a guy they can run the offense through, and he is their best perimeter defender.

Needless to say, his return is huge for the Bulls. Will it be enough is another question, but he’s not going to get eased back in going up against James Harden.

 

Hornets making strong playoff push, won 8 of last 10 games

Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan just might find himself back in the NBA playoffs.

His Charlotte Hornets (32-28) are making a strong push toward the postseason, winning eight of their last 10 games to move up to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings.

Now the Hornets have a chance to gain separation from the middle of the East pack and possibly jump up to a higher seed with nine of their next 10 games at home, including the next seven in a row. Charlotte is two games behind the Miami Heat for the East’s fourth-best record, giving them a chance to claim home-field advantage for a playoff series if they can keep winning.

“There are two things we talked about repeatedly at the beginning of the season – you want to make the playoffs, but you also want to be playing in a way that you can be a factor in the playoffs,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “We are playing better and better, especially on the road.”

They’re playing even better at home.

The Hornets are 20-9 this season at the place they call “The Hive.”

They’ll open the home stand Friday night against Indiana, which is just a half-game behind Charlotte in the East standings in seventh place, giving added significance to the game.

“It’s important, it’s really important,” guard Kemba Walker said of the upcoming home stand. “We definitely want to take care of business. We are able to get some rest and try to take advantage of our home court.”

Clifford attributes Charlotte’s recent success to the improved play of Walker and the overall team defense. The Hornets have allowed only one of their last 12 opponents to score 100 points.

Walker, who is 18th in the league in scoring, is averaging 23.8 points and 5.5 assists over the last 10 games. He had 26 points against Phoenix and 30 points versus Philadelphia in wins on Tuesday and Wednesday night, respectively.

As Walker goes, so go the Hornets this season.

The 6-foot-1 point guard is averaging 23.5 points per game in the team’s 31 wins and 17.7 points in its 28 losses.

“He has improved every year but the jump from last year to this year is really significant,” Clifford said.

Walker is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range after averaging just 31.7 percent in his previous four seasons with the Hornets making him a candidate as the league’s most improved player.

Clifford said Walker’s pick-and-roll game has also improved dramatically, particularly how he’s learned to set up the defense.

“He has the dribble-through like (Steve) Nash used to do, his pull-up game, he is drawing fouls on the bigs and scores on both sides of the basket,” Clifford said.

Said Jeremy Lin: “He’s shooting the ball great. He’s playing with great poise and he’s definitely controlling the game. Coach is going through him and he’s doing a great job of producing.”

Now the Hornets turn their attention to maintaining momentum down the stretch, where they have six more back-to-back games.

“I know we control our own record and own situation and that’s what we have to focus on,” Lin said.

LeBron James says he doesn’t care about look of Miami trip

Associated Press
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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James didn’t want to discuss his cryptic tweet, his quick trip to hang out with Dwyane Wade in Florida or much of anything.

It’s good to be the king.

Following an unusual two-day break in their schedule, James and the Cavaliers returned to practice on Thursday to prepare for a stretch of three games in four nights. James met with reporters afterward, but the four-time league MVP wasn’t in the mood to elaborate on his actions or whereabouts over the past few days.

On Tuesday, James posted a message on Twitter to his 28.5 million followers that seemed to be directed at one person.

“It’s ok to know you’ve made a mistake,” James wrote. “Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with those who will protect you at all cost!”

The posting created speculation about its intended target, stirring up even more drama around the Cavaliers, but James refused to elaborate on his intentions.

James bluntly answered “No” when he was asked if he wanted to explain the tweet, which had some wondering if he was conspicuously calling out one of his teammates – something he has done on social media in the past.

“Nope,” James said when asked if that was the case.

Of more concern to Clevelanders was James’ visit to Miami, where he hung out with good friend and former teammate Wade, a potential playoff opponent this year. James went on the trip with his wife, Savannah, who has kept a business in Miami. And although James sold his mansion there last summer, he spent part of his offseason training in South Florida.

So why did he go there this time?

“Cause I want to,” he said. “I would love to go to L.A., but I’ll take 2 1/2 (hours of flight time to Miami) over 4 1/2 (flight to Los Angeles). “I’ve got a house in L.A. but it makes more sense for me to go south than go west. But I go because I want to.”

The sight of he and Wade working out together is the last thing Cavs fans want to see, especially since James continues to sign one-year contracts with Cleveland and because he has left his home state before.

James was asked if he understands why some people might be upset he would meet with Wade.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t care.”

James recently sat out Sunday’s game at Washington and Cavs coach Tyronn Lue intends to sit him – and Cleveland’s other starters – during some upcoming games so they’re rested for the postseason and another run at an NBA title. The Cavs host the Wizards on Friday, Boston on Saturday and Memphis on Monday.

James said he and Lue have not yet discussed plans for time off.

“I’m going to go with what coach believes is the best for the team, believe is best for me,” James said.

Lue, who took over when the Cavs fired David Blatt earlier this season, said he wants to have his rotation finalized with six or seven games left in the regular season.

“My whole thing is going into the playoffs you want to be on a good roll and playing good going into the playoffs, so, that’s my thought, that’s my philosophy,” he said. “We’ll still get guys rest when we have the chance to.”

James concluded his nine-minute interview session by asking reporters if it was OK for him to leave.

He then said, “love you guys” before walking away.

Not long after, James went back on Twitter to post another mysterious message: “Can’t replace being around great friends that reciprocate the same energy back to you in all facets of life.”

If he’s talking about Wade, he probably won’t admit it.

Pelicans’ center Alexis Ajinca out indefinitely with fractured sternum

Associated Press
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As if the Pelicans’ don’t have enough guys out for the season with injuries — Quincy Pondexter (left knee), Tyreke Evans (right knee), Bryce Dejean-Jones (wrist) — there may be one more. Or at least, he is out for a while.

Pelicans’ center Alexis Ajinca suffered a fractured sternum against the Rockets and is out indefinitely, the team has announced. There is no timetable for his return.

A 7’2″ center out of France, Ajinca had started a few games recently and was the first big off the bench Wednesday night behind Kendrick Perkins because Omer Asik is out injured as well.

Ajinca had his chance this season to prove he could fit in Alvin Gentry’s system next to Anthony Davis, but it hasn’t worked out — he is averaging  4.4 points and 4 rebounds a game. 

Gentry has said the Pelicans are out of the playoff picture in the West, even if they are not mathematically eliminated yet. This is a team that is going to see a healthy roster overhaul this summer (and the buzz around the league is to expect some front office changes as well).

Jared Dudley whistled for phantom foul on Zach LaVine (VIDEO)

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Referees are human, they make mistakes. It’s part of the game.

But some of those mistakes are uglier than others.

This foul called on the Wizards’ Jared Dudley at the end of the first quarter against the Timberwolves Wednesday night was in the ugly category. Jason Phillips saw contact where there was none. He reviewed the call but the only thing he is allowed to review is if the shot was made before time expired — it was — not whether the call should have been made in the first place. It shouldn’t have.

It didn’t end up mattering, the Wizards won on the road 104-98 anyway. But this is about as blatant a missed call as you’re going to see.