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Jimmy Butler’s ascent continues into superstardom

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Jimmy Butler was in Milwaukee and hundreds of miles from his home of Tomball, Texas. He was trying to fit in with his new Marquette teammates, most of whom he had never met before. He had to change his playing style as he transitioned up a level.

And then it snowed.

“Unbelievable to me,” Butler said. “I don’t know if I was happy or pissed off that it was snowing. I had never seen snow before. I was incredibly cold.

“That was the biggest culture shock of everything. It was hard. But we got through it. We always do.”

He always does.

The Bulls wing called going from junior college to the Big East the most difficult step in his basketball journey. What he’s doing this year, it’s not easy. But Butler has overcome numerous other challenges.

A rough childhood, getting overlooked in recruiting, rising from junior college to top-shelf college basketball, climbing draft boards as a relatively unheralded prospect, carving out a role in the NBA, working his way into stardom.

Now, Butler – the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2015 – is pushing himself into the NBA’s elite. He’s averaging 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game. He ranks third in real plus-minus, sixth in PER and fourth in win shares.

MVP? Another MIP?

Butler dismisses the “individual s—” with a grimace, but he’s taking to his elevated stature.

“I figured, ‘Why can’t I be up there with the best of them?'” Butler said. “And I continue to think that way.”

Butler didn’t always carry such confidence, and he doesn’t have to think far back to remember the days he lacked it. Jerel McNeal, Wesley Mathews, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder overshadowed him at Marquette. Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer once dwarfed his presence on the Bulls.

“I wasn’t always a really good player,” Butler said. “I just worked harder than everybody. I just played harder than everybody.”

Butler developed his skills. He gained fame and fortune.

He just never lost his work ethic.

As he continue to practice and study, he learned how far that could take him. Butler has made the last two All-Star games and last three All-Defensive second teams. Now, he’s recognizing his own potential.

“Your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said.

That confidence is spreading.

Say whatever you want about how he has handled his rise into stardom, Butler continues to rise. He deserves more credit for his jump from star to superstar, maybe one of the most difficult leaps in sports. But his continued evolution has warped expectations.

Bulls teammate Dwyane Wade first noticed Butler at Marquette, their shared alma mater. Could Wade envision then Butler turning into an NBA player?

“That was hard to see,” Wade said.

What about once Butler got into the league? Did his star potential show?

“No, didn’t see that,” Wade said.

Then Butler’s leap to superstardom surely must have also caught Wade off guard, right?

“I won’t say surprise,” Wade said. “He’s playing with the talent he has.

“He’s not doing nothing overcomplicated. He’s not crossing people, making them fall. He’s not jumping over tall people. He’s playing his game. He’s getting to the basket, hitting the mid-range pullup, doing things like that.”

Unfortunately for Butler’s MVP chances, he’s doing it in a year so many other players are posting unworldly numbers. His combination of 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds an 4.1 assists per game has been matched over a full season just 56 times in the NBA’s 70-year history. Do that in the right year – especially with Butler’s efficiency: shooting 47.2% from the field, 35.1% on 3-pointers and 88.9% on free throws – and Butler walks away with MVP.

But this season, four players – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Butler – are on pace to hit that scoring/rebounding/passing combination, which would be a record. To win MVP, Butler must fend off those other three and Chris Paul and Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James and…

Still, Butler has a more realistic chance of making history given his humble entry into the NBA. The No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, he could o become the highest finisher in MVP voting in his lifetime who was drafted so low. The current bar is seventh in MVP voting, done by both No. 35 pick Draymond Green and undrafted Ben Wallace.

Butler could also break records with his sustained improvement.

Several Most Improved Players – Ryan Anderson, Kevin Love, Monta Ellis,* Bobby Simmons, Zach Randolph, Gilbert Arenas, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Rony Seikaly – received votes for the award after winning it. But none seriously contended for a repeat. The closest was 1990 winner Seikaly, who finished 12th in 1997 – with a single vote.

*Ellis received is the only player to receive MIP votes in multiple seasons after winning it. He won the award in 2007 and then made his way onto the ballot in 2008 and 2010.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as a strong frontrunner for 2017 Most Improved player, but Butler belongs in the mix.

To cherry-pick one measure among the many that showcases Butler’s improvement, his PER has risen from 21.3 each of the last two season to 27.8 this year. Only Terry Rozier and Giannis Antetokounmpo have made bigger jumps from their previous career-high PER to a new career high this season (minimum: 200 minutes each season):

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Butler’s ascension has invited greater leadership responsibilities, an area that drew immense scrutiny last season.

Chicago traded Rose and watched Noah walk over the summer. Newcomers Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo declared the Bulls to be Butler’s team.

The pressure was on, and Butler appears to be delivering.

Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg, who drew public criticism from Butler last year, called him a “great leader.” Butler again asked Hoiberg to coach him harder before this season, and his teammates have noticed.

“Is he hard on himself? Is he hard on guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to? Yes. He’s supposed to be hard on them,” Wade said. “But I think he’s as advertised.”

That’s because Butler continues to show his genuineness.

“He has a little different personality,” Wade said. “You come in, and everybody talk about it. He’s in the locker room singing country music and all these songs that most people ain’t used to listening to.”

That’s Butler from Tomball, Texas.

He’s now on an effectively max contract, in commercials and headed toward an even higher level of stardom on the court.

Yet, he remains relentless in his approach.

“I’m about right now,” Butler said. “Every single day, what can I do right now to get better for tomorrow – and that’s not even promised. What can I do right now to finish out the day right?”

Damian Lillard drops 40, leads Blazers past Wizards

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WASHINGTON (AP) Damian Lillard scored 40 points, C.J. McCullom added 25 and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Washington Wizards 119-109 on Sunday.

Jusuf Nurkic had 13 points, 14 rebounds and matched his career high with eight assists for Portland.

The Trail Blazers, coming off a 112-96 loss at Minnesota on Friday, snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 11-5.

John Wall scored 24 points and Kelly Oubre, Jr. added 19 for the Wizards, who slipped to 5-11.

The Trail Blazers started quickly, hitting 7 for 9 shots from 3-point range and taking a 32-12 lead with 3:54 remaining in the first quarter. Washington scored 15 straight and closed to 32-27, but Portland outscored the Wizards 30-14 and led 62-41 at the half.

Lillard scored 13 points in the second quarter and added 18 in the third.

Washington, which trailed by 29 points in the third, cut the deficit to 115-107 with 51 seconds to play.

Dwight Howard, who missed the first seven games of the season with gluteal soreness, aggravated the injury in the second quarter and was ruled out at halftime after scoring two points and picking up three fouls in seven minutes.

TIP INS:

Trail Blazers: G Seth Curry (right knee) missed his second straight game. … F Maurice Harkless (left knee) sat out his 11th in a row. . C Zach Collins picked up four fouls in eight first-half minutes and fouled out in the fourth quarter after playing just 13 minutes. … F Al-Farouq Aminu also fouled out late in the fourth.

Wizards: Coach Scott Brooks was assessed a technical foul in the third quarter. . Oubre picked up a fourth quarter technical foul. . G Jordan McRae was recalled from the G League Capital City Go-Go, but didn’t dress. McRae is averaging 36.7 points in three games in the G League.

UP NEXT:

Trail Blazers: Visit the Knicks in the fourth of a five-game road trip on Tuesday

Wizards: Host the Clippers in the final game of a five-game homestand on Tuesday

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Josh Jackson yells at teammate ‘You want to f—king play or what?’ (VIDEO)

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The Phoenix Suns are a bad team. They aren’t the worst team in the NBA — the Cleveland Cavaliers have them edged out there — but it’s clear there’s some serious work to do with this young squad moving forward.

It’s early in the season, but even with many young players in a development year, most would like to put a few more wins up on the board. As such, when poor or low effort play is involved, it’s possible for tensions to boil over.

That’s what happened on Saturday night as the Suns took on the Oklahoma City Thunder. During an inbounds play with a few seconds left to go in the third quarter, sloppy play by his Phoenix teammates led Josh Jackson to yell at TJ Warren.

Via Twitter:

I mean, someone has to come to the ball there, right? That’s some 5th grade basketball nonsense right there.

Perhaps Warren and the rest of the Suns thought that Jackson would try to launch the ball into their own half of the court to get a closer shot? In any case more communication was necessary.

The Suns lost to the Thunder, 110-100, and dropped to 3-12 on the season.

LeBron James scores 51 points, Lakers torch Heat 113-97

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MIAMI (AP) LeBron James scored 51 points against his former club and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 113-97 on Sunday night.

James had 19 points in the first quarter to set the tone, the Lakers led by as many as 21 and never trailed.

The 51 points were a season high for James, and the most he’s scored against Miami; he had 47 against the Heat twice. His last shot was a 32-footer with 16 seconds left, capping the 13th 50-point game of his career – including playoffs – and he threw the ball skyward at midcourt when time expired.

It was James’ first time winning against Miami since he left the Heat after the 2014 NBA Finals. He was 0-4 when facing the Heat since; his teams were 0-7, when including the three Cleveland-Miami games that he sat out for various reasons.

Wayne Ellington scored 19 points for Miami (6-10), which has dropped four straight home games and is off to its second-worst start in the last 12 years. The Heat were 5-11 at this point of the 2016-17 season, the only other time they’ve been worse after 16 games in that span.

Josh Richardson scored 17 points before getting ejected in the fourth quarter after throwing one of his sneakers about 15 rows deep into the crowd, while he was arguing about what he thought should have been a foul call that didn’t come his way. Tyler Johnson also had 17 points for the Heat, while Rodney McGruder added 14.

Goran Dragic missed the game for Miami because of a right knee problem, one that will be further evaluated Monday. Dwyane Wade missed his seventh consecutive game for the Heat because of the birth of his and wife Gabrielle Union-Wade’s daughter; it’s possible that Wade returns to the Heat this week.

Miami hasn’t forgotten James, obviously – he still gets loud cheers when introduced in his former home arena – but just in case anyone in attendance needed a reminder of what’s in his skillset, he put on a show. He made eight of his first nine shots and had the whole arsenal working; dunks in transition, stepback 3-pointers, turnarounds from the baseline.

But the biggest shot for the Lakers might have come from Brandon Ingram with 3:46 left. Miami had clawed within eight and the shot clock was about to expire on the Lakers, but Ingram connected on a long jumper from the left wing to make it 104-94.

From there, the only drama was whether James would get 50. And he did.

TIP-INS

Lakers: This game is part of a long weekend of sorts in Miami for the Lakers, who arrived Saturday night after playing in Orlando and aren’t scheduled to fly to Cleveland until Tuesday. … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 19 points, Kyle Luzma scored 15 and Ingram finished with 13.

Heat: The last time Miami lost four straight at home was early in the 2014-15 season, which was actually a five-game slide. … Miami had the rare five-shot possession in the third quarter, with three missed layups and a missed jumper, all of them rebounded by the Heat, before Ellington made a 3-pointer. … The Heat fouled 3-point shooters twice in the first half, after doing so only twice – total – in the season’s first 15 games.

CONSISTENT LEBRON

Whenever James changes teams – Cleveland to Miami in 2010, Miami to Cleveland in 2014, Cleveland to the Lakers this past summer – the same thing always happens: His new team starts 9-7. The Lakers surely hope the other thing that happens when James changes teams holds true, since the 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavs both went to the NBA Finals.

HEAT HELP

James Johnson played for the first time this season after finally being declared good to go following offseason sports hernia surgery. He had four fouls in the first half and finished with eight points.

UP NEXT

Lakers: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday. The Lakers are 2-11 in their last 13 trips to Cleveland.

Heat: Host Brooklyn on Tuesday. The Heat defeated the Nets 120-107 in Brooklyn last week.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Josh Richardson get ejected for throwing a shoe into the stands

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It can be annoying when you can’t complete a simple task sometimes. For example, like when you are trying to put your shoe on and it just won’t work, for whatever reason. Did you suddenly forget how? Why aren’t your fingers working? Did your foot get fatter? A million dumb questions run through your mind at times like these.

That’s apparently what happened to Miami Heat wing Josh Richardson on Sunday as he took on the Los Angeles Lakers.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, Richardson felt that he was fouled on an attempt at the rim. He didn’t get the call, and needed to adjust his shoe in the meantime. When Los Angeles took possession of the ball — and with Richardson still without his shoe — the University of Tennessee product took an aggressive foul on LeBron James.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra then subbed Richardson out as he continued to try to put on his shoe. Frustrated that he couldn’t get it on, Richardson then hucked the shoe into the stands.

Via Twitter:

That move got Richardson a ejected from the game, and rightly so.

Who throws a shoe, honestly?

LA beat Miami, 113-97.