Jimmy Butler’s improvement may be the key to Bulls’ championship chances

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NEW YORK — Before the season began, there were plenty of reasons that made it easy to pencil in the Bulls as legitimate title contenders, with a healthy former MVP in Derrick Rose, a reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, and a newly-acquired four-time All-Star and two-time champion in Pau Gasol all near the top of that list.

But it may be the emergence of another player that makes Chicago the primary favorites.

Jimmy Butler turned down a contract extension from the Bulls before the season began, and chose to bet on himself instead. The improvement he’s shown to this point in the season has him in the All-Star conversation, and in line for a huge payday in the offseason should he continue to showcase his skills by putting together such a stellar set of performances.

After averaging 13.1 points on 39.7 percent shooting a season ago, Butler’s numbers have jumped to 21.9 points on 49.8 percent shooting through the first 15 games of this year. He’s become so unstoppable on the offensive end of the floor that he’s averaging 8.8 free throw attempts per game — behind only Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and James Harden for most in the league.

His play has been so consistent that it’s getting to the point where his teammates and head coach are relying on it on a nightly basis.

“Yeah,” Tom Thibodeau said three times after Sunday’s win over the Nets, when asked if Butler’s high level of play is now being expected. “He’s embraced that role. He’s prepared himself well. He continues to work at it. He’s playing with great intensity. He’s studying. He’s preparing. He practices hard. So I’m not surprised. When you practice well you play well; it’s really that simple.”

“Each year that he’s been in the league, he’s made big jumps,” Thibodeau said. “I think he’s a very bright guy. Obviously, he’s talented, you can’t do what he’s doing without great talent. But it’s all the other things that go along with it — his intelligence, his drive, the way he can analyze how he’s playing and what he wants to work on to improve. Getting in great shape was huge for him, being lighter is big. And just day after day, he gives you everything he has. Those type of guys always improve.”

His teammates have similar expectations, and couldn’t be happier to see Butler flourishing within the confines of Chicago’s system.

“We hold him accountable,” said Derrick Rose “We know how hard he works. He wants to play that way. However he wants to do it — whether it’s jump shots, or driving into the lane, or however he wants to get into the post, we’re going to find a way [to get him the ball].

“Jimmy’s been huge for us,” said Joakim Noah. “If we can just keep him right, he makes our team so dangerous.”

“I know how bad he wants it,” Noah said. “He plays for the right reasons, too. It’s never any forced shots, it’s always within the system, and he plays for his guys.”

Butler’s known as one of the league’s better defenders, and he had that part of his game on full display in Brooklyn on Sunday. He completely shut down Joe Johnson, holding him to just three points on 1-of-7 shooting, while holding his position well as Johnson attempted to back him down, often times getting deep paint position.

But it’s the strides he’s made on the offensive end of the floor that have everyone taking notice.

“I think I have [improved], but my teammates also have a lot to do with it,” Butler said. “I can’t get the ball by myself. They’re always looking for me, and when I have a mismatch, they’re always looking to give me the ball.”

We’re only a month into the season, and thanks to some off and on injury issues with guys like Rose and Taj Gibson, the Bulls find themselves with a record of 11-6 — good for just third in the East. But it’s already evident that this is a tight team whose chemistry is coming together, and Butler’s vastly improved overall game may ultimately prove to be the final piece of the Bulls’ championship puzzle.

MORE: CSN Chicago subscriber? Watch Bulls-Mavericks Tuesday at 8:00 pm ET

Boston offseason: Offer Tatum max extension; watch Hayward pick up option

Jayson Tatum
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Boston fans may be frustrated that their team didn’t advance to the NBA Finals — the Celtics beat the defending champion Raptors in the second round, while the top-seeded Bucks had been cleared out of the path — but this is still a team that made strides this season. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown evolved into franchise cornerstones, with Tatum now looking like a No. 1 option, plus Kemba Walker proved a better fit with this team than Kyrie Irving. Throw in role players like Daniel Theis stepping up, and there are reasons for optimism even as the East gets better.

Two things to expect from Boston and team president Danny Ainge this offseason: Paying Tatum the max and watching Gordon Hayward pick up his $34.2 million option.

There will need to be other moves to add depth — they have Memphis’ No. 14 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and two other first-rounders, as chips to use — but Tatum and Hayward are the most expensive decisions.

With Tatum, it seems a no-brainer now to offer him a max extension to his rookie contract. He has become the alpha for this team, averaging 23.4 points and seven rebounds a game this season, even if he learned some hard lessons this past week about the demands of that role deep in the playoffs. Tatum made Third Team All-NBA this season, meaning he is eligible for 28% of the salary cap, make the team again next season and that jumps to 30%, meaning a max extension worth more than $200 million over five years (depending on where the salary cap is in a year, something nobody is sure about).

“I ain’t even thought about that yet,” Tatum said of an extension after Miami eliminated Boston from the postseason. “I was just focused on this season. Like you guys know, that’s a process the front office and my agent have to talk about it…

“So stuff like that, when it happens, if it happens, that’s not really my concern right now. I’m not even thinking about that. Just trying to think about the great season we had and the great players, great guys I was around. This was a hell of a year and I enjoyed it and I’m appreciative of everybody. But at the end of the day, this was fun. I’m not really thinking about the other stuff right now.”

With Hayward, the buzz around the league is he will pick up his player option for $34.2 million.

This also is pretty obvious. While Hayward showed flashes of being the All-Star player he was before his devastating leg injury, and versatile wing players are in demand around the league, there is not anything near $34 million waiting for him on the open market. Especially not in a coronavirus-impacted world where NBA owners have taken a financial hit. Hayward is going to take his money then see what the demand for his services looks like in 2021 (which looks to be a very deep free-agent class).

Boston will make some roster tweaks, but will run back the core of a young team — Tatum is 22, Brown is 23 — that is improving. A core than made strides this season, but will find those final steps into contender status are the toughest ones.

 

LaMelo Ball among those participating in 2020 NBA Draft Combine

2020 NBA Draft Combine
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It may be virtual this year with “pro day” video being made, but some of the traditions of the NBA Draft Combine will be here in 2020.

Including the top players skipping it. Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, and Obi Toppin are among the big names sitting this one out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

One interesting note: LaMelo Ball is participating.

But that may be for the interview portion only, reports Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated.

The 2020 NBA Draft Combine will see players do team interviews via videoconference starting this week (and running through Oct. 16).  Players also can be part of an individual on-court program consisting of strength and agility testing, measurements (height, reach, plus vertical leap and more), shooting drills and a “Pro Day” video, and a medical exam, all conducted by league officials and the information (and video) given to teams. 

The 2020 NBA Draft is set for Nov. 18.

NBA Finals Schedule 2020: Dates, times, odds, where to watch

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It’s happening in October, not June, but the 2020 NBA Finals are finally here — and we have the schedule.

These Finals feature a team in the Lakers and a player in LeBron James who expects to be in the Finals — this is LeBron’s 10th trip to the Finals, only three other players had done that before him. The Lakers are making their 32nd trip to the Finals as a franchise and are going for their 17th title.

It also features a gritty Miami Heat team that nobody expected to be here, except themselves. Led by Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Goran Dragic, the Heat have thrived in the bubble in a way no other team in the East could match, plus Miami makes it rain threes.

The Lakers are fairly heavy favorites, -400, to win the series, while the Heat are +300 (Odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

As has nearly all the playoffs in the NBA’s restart bubble, the Finals will run every other day.

Here is the 2020 NBA Finals schedule (all times are Eastern):

NBA FINALS

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat

Game 1: Sept. 30, 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 2: Oct. 2, 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 3: Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Oct. 6, 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Oct. 9, 9 p.m. (ABC)*
Game 6: Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)*
Game 7: Oct. 13, 9 p.m. (ABC)*
*If necessary

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NBA playoffs, Finals schedule 2020: Date, time, matchup for every game

NBA playoff schedule 2020
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It may be five months after they were originally planned, but the NBA playoff schedule has reached the point the 2020 Finals are here.

It is down to the final two. There is LeBron James leading the Lakers against the team where he first won his ring. And then there is the gritty Miami team that nobody expected to be here — except themselves.

Here are a few notes on the NBA playoffs schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing to push the pace with games every other day — except for one two-day break between Game 4 and Game 5
Even more members of families for the players, coaches, and team staff are in the bubble.

Here is the NBA playoffs schedule 2020 (all times are Eastern):

NBA FINALS

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat

Game 1: Sept. 30, 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 2: Oct. 2, 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 3: Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Oct. 6, 9 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Oct. 9, 9 p.m. (ABC)*
Game 6: Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m. (ABC)*
Game 7: Oct. 13, 9 p.m. (ABC)*
*If necessary.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Conference Finals

Eastern Conference Finals

No. 5 Miami beat No. 3 Boston 4-2

Western Conference Finals

No. 1 L.A. Lakers beat No. 3 Denver 4-1

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Second Round results

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Boston beat No. 2 Toronto 4-3

No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Milwaukee 4-1

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat Houston 4-1

No. 3 Denver beat No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First Round results

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat No. 8 Portland 4-1

No. 2 L.A. Clippers beat No. 7 Dallas 4-2

No. 3 Denver beat No. 6 Utah 4-3

No. 4 Houston beat No. 5 Oklahoma City 4-3

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee beat No. 8 Orlando 4-1

No. 2 Toronto beat No. 7 Brooklyn 4-0

No. 3 Boston beat No. 6 Philadelphia 4-0

No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana 4-0