Jimmy Butler says Bulls need to find defensive identity again to be real playoff threat

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There have been flashes this season when the Chicago Bulls have lived up to their potential. Beating the Trail Blazers back in December when Derrick Rose scored 31. Or beating the Rockets in January when Pau Gasol had 27. Or even topping the Oklahoma City Thunder just last week (although both teams were shorthanded). There have been others. But it has only been in flashes.

Mostly, this season has seen the Bulls look shorthanded due to injury, and even when healthy nothing like the contenders they are on paper.

It’s because the Bulls have gone away from their identity, if you ask Jimmy Butler, the team’s leading scorer and best perimeter defender. In years past the Bulls were known as tenacious defenders who will grind a team down in the Tom Thibodeau style. This season they are 13th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 102 points per 100 possessions. They have been pedestrian. Injuries are a part of that; they have ravaged this team — Rose and Jimmy Butler are out right now — but it is more than just that if you ask Butler.

“I think it’s more about us being able to score the ball so well now that we think we can outscore opponents,” Butler told ProBasketballTalk. “If we want to win a championship like we say we want to, we’re going to have to start guarding and stop trying to outscore people and just stop them from scoring as a whole.”

Thibodeau is not yelling about defense in practice. Well, any more than normal.

“He don’t have to talk about it, we know,” Butler said. “We’re not a team that’s normally giving up 100 points, let alone 110. We know that we have to guard, play better defense, so Thibs doesn’t have to tell us, we don’t have to tell each other, because we already know.”

Butler, speaking to PBT as part of Kellogg’s Give a Child Breakfast efforts, is out right now with an elbow strain he got on a fluke play as he tried to fight through a screen. He’s Chicago’s leading scorer at 20.2 points a game, and with him and the playmaking Rose out the Bulls’ offense is suffering (scoring less than a point per possession in their last five games). That remains the main thing for any Bulls playoff run.

“We just got to be healthy,” Butler said. “I think injuries happen but, you know, we just want to get back out there as soon as possible. Until then we have good enough guys and a deep enough team that they can hold the fort down.”

As for the line of thinking that Thibodeau and his hard-driving style is at the heart of the injury woes over the years for the Bulls, that doesn’t fly in the locker room if you ask Butler.

“Thibs doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Butler told PBT. “I think injuries, they just happen. I wasn’t overtired when I ran into the screen; it’s just basketball. It really does happen. It has nothing to do with Thibs. Thibs is good at what he does and he’s always putting us in a great position to win games, so kudos to him. He’s a great coach.”

Butler may be missing time on the court but it hasn’t changed his focus on a charitable efforts he admits he finds very personal — making sure children get fed breakfast before school. He was at a Chicago-area school last week to help promote the effort.

“We just want to raise awareness that one in every five kids may go to school hungry in the morning, and to try and change that we want to try and provide 1 billion servings of cereal and snacks by the end of 2016 and a million breakfasts by the end of 2015,” Butler said of the Kellogg’s Give a Child Breakfast campaign.

That campaign and Butler could get more of a spotlight if Butler and the Bulls can put together a playoff run.

But that involves the Bulls getting back to who they are.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”