CHICAGO – Luol Deng’s return couldn’t slow down the latest offensive outburst from Jimmy Butler.
Butler scored a career-high 19 points and Nate Robinson added 15 as the Chicago Bulls beat the Charlotte Bobcats, 93-85, on Monday night.
Deng returned to the Bulls’ lineup after missing five games with a hamstring injury, and scored 12 points in 31 minutes. The Bulls won three of five without Deng as his absence was eased by the strong play of Butler, who returned to a reserve role.
After Deng injured his hamstring he sent a message that Butler embraced.
“I think it hit home the most when Luol came up to me and said, ‘You can do this. This is your time, step in and keep playing the way you have been playing.’ When you hear that from an All-Star, from Derrick (Rose) and Jo (Joakim Noah) that’s big. I have been here for almost two years now – I think that’s what I need to hear,” Butler said.
“The confidence comes from my teammates, if I have an off night then they’re still going to be there supporting me ... It’s not going to be like this every night but I have the best teammates, it makes it easy.”
It was third time in the past six games that Butler set or tied his career-high in points and his defense has also taken notice after slowing down Kobe Bryant in a win against the Lakers on Jan. 21.
“Jimmy is playing great for us right now. We need that. He just has to keep growing and get better. He plays so hard. He’s been patient and he’s been working hard on his game,” Deng said. “I’m just so happy for him that because it takes time to understand the NBA game. There are still a lot of areas he can get better at but what he’s shown so far is just his hard work and he’s going to keep getting better.”
Noah finished with 13 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists to help Central Division-leading the Bulls win for the seventh time in its past nine games.
Kemba Walker and Ben Gordon led the Bobcats with 18 points apiece. Charlotte has lost nine of its last 11 games.
The Bulls pulled away late in the third quarter behind Robinson. After Walker’s jumper erased a 14-point deficit and tied the score at 55, the Bulls scored 13 straight points.
Robinson sparked the run with a pair of 3-pointers then had a steal to set up a dunk by Butler to put the Bulls up 68-55.
“When things weren’t going their way on the other end (offense), they did a solid job of defending throughout the entire game,” said Gordon.
Robinson wasn’t done. He made a pull-up 3, then had a steal and layup to give the Bulls a 75-61 lead.
Charlotte got it within six late in the fourth quarter, but Carlos Boozer put the game away with a dunk over Bismack Biyombo with 1:25 left.
“We got ourselves back in it. A two possession game when the money was on the line and a couple of unfortunate turnovers cost us the game,” said Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap.
Jeff Adrien had 14 points and 10 rebounds in his first NBA start. Gordon scored 15 points in the second half.
Leading 23-20 early in the second quarter, Chicago extended its lead with a 17-6 run. Butler had six points in the span and Deng made a 3 to make it 40-26.
Kirk Hinrich’s 3-pointer as time expired in the second quarter gave the Bulls a 49-40 halftime lead. Butler led the Bulls with 10 points in the opening two quarters, and Boozer had nine. Walker led the Bobcats with 11.
Charlotte was able to erase the Bulls’ 14-point lead as Gordon’s jumper got the Bobcats to 54-53 and Walker’s jumper tied the score at 55 with 3:36 left in the third quarter.
The Bulls have won five of their past seven games against teams with winning records, including two victories at Eastern Conference leaders Miami and New York. However, they have struggled to beat teams with sub-.500 records. Their latest poor showing came in a loss to the Wizards on Saturday night.
Charlotte pulled out a 10-point win against the Bulls to snap their 18-game losing streak on New Year’s Eve.
Adrien, called up from the D-League in December, replaced Hakim Warrick in Charlotte’s starting lineup.
Deng said his hamstring felt fine after the game.
“Honestly, I was a little worried. I haven’t gone full speed like that. With the game I was worried about the change in speed so I am happy I didn’t have any setbacks,” said Deng.
NOTES: Before the game, Thibodeau wouldn’t comment if Derrick Rose is ready to return to full practices. “He’s coming along, he still has a ways to go,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who has been discreet on the timetable of Rose’s return. ... Boozer finished with 13 points.