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Westerlund: 5 Thoughts After Bulls-Spurs

By Cody Westerlund--

CHICAGO (CBS) – Lockdown defense from wing Jimmy Butler and a block from guard Derrick Rose on a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds helped the Bulls hold on for a 92-89 win against the Spurs on Monday night at the United Center.

Chicago improved to 10-5 with the win. Here are the notes and observations of the night.

1. Bulls big man Joakim Noah had his best game of the season, recording eight points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in 23 minutes. He had "his swag back," as Butler put it.

"Jo was awesome," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

As he has all year, Noah came off the bench and was rotated in for defensive purposes late. Afterward, he opened up – when pried time and again for answers – about how the transition to the bench has affected him, after years of being a centerpiece for Chicago.

"It's been very frustrating at times," Noah said. "But I'm blessed to have an unbelievable opportunity to be playing for the Chicago Bulls. Of course, sometimes I'm a passionate player – I get frustrated."

The 30-year-old Noah is in the final year of his contract with the Bulls, adding another layer of intrigue. Taking a smaller role diminishes his opportunity to shine and earn bigger money.

Noah's averaging a career-low 3.1 points on 36.5 percent shooting in just shy of 21 minutes per game. It's been a challenge from the start.

"I'm not going to lie … There's been a lot going on this year," Noah said. "There's been a lot of adversity for me. I have to be better at being a good leader for this team sometimes.

"It's not good to be frustrated, especially as one of the leaders of the team. There's no question about that.

"I have to work on my frustration, to be a better example on my teammates. No question about it. No question."

Noah adeptly toed the line on a straightforward series of questions, being honest while displaying perspective.

"I want to play the whole game – I never want to come out," he said. "But I understand this is my role now and just accept it and do the best I can with what I have.

"Overall, we just beat a very good team tonight. And you know, there's been games where I haven't played well. I played like shit. So I just have to keep building on this hopefully and just keep getting better and play confident basketball. I think it will definitely be a plus for this team."

2. News came before Monday's game that Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy will be out at least a few more weeks – and likely longer – after a setback in his rehab from late September back surgery.

That's problematic not just because of what Dunleavy means to the team but also because of how Tony Snell and Doug McDermott have played in his place. Snell has been abysmal offensively, while McDermott has struggled on defense while boasting a hot shooting hand.

On Monday, both stepped up after recent struggles. Snell scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including 3-of-3 from behind the arc. He had scored just 22 points combined in the previous six games.

Meanwhile, McDermott acquitted himself well on the defensive end, with Hoiberg notably lauding him for his tough play while checking Spurs wing Manu Ginobili. McDermott had 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting as well.

Those were good signs for the Bulls, who – for better and worse – will need to continue to rely on Snell and McDermott.

3. Much has been made of Bulls big man Pau Gasol's porous defense this season, rightfully so. Foes have taken advantage of him in pick-and-roll situations time and again, and Gasol also has a knack for giving up offensive rebounds because he doesn't body up his man consistently enough.

That said, if the powers that be selected an all-NBA defense for the final minutes of games, Gasol would be on the first team. On Monday, he came up with a crucial rejection of LaMarcus Aldridge on a layup attempt with 1:06 left to preserve an 89-all tie. Of course, many fans will remember that Gasol also blocked LeBron James in the waning seconds of the season opener to preserve a Bulls win against the Cavaliers.

It all just goes to show – most everything comes in shades of gray in the NBA. Despite his limited lateral quickness, Gasol can do his job defensively when given a task within his means. And at 35, he remains a deterrent at the rim in the right situations.

Gasol was 27th in the NBA in rim protection entering Monday among 75 qualifying players (with parameters of playing at least eight games and guarding foes who averaged at least 4.0 field-goal attempts at the rim), according to NBA.com. Foes were making 45.9 percent of their shots against Gasol at the rim. The league leaders often hover around 40 percent in that category.

4. Butler shed some light on a sore heel that's bothered him since he injured it late in a Nov. 20 loss at Golden State. He's played on as usual – logging nearly 40 minutes Monday – and was adamant that he won't sit out.

"Play through it," Butler said of his plan. "I don't think anybody cares that I'm injured. Nobody feels sorry for me. So I got to play."

Butler is receiving treatment for his ailment.

"Hopefully it doesn't get worse," Butler said. "Get some treatment and be ready to go Wednesday (against Denver).

"My decision is my decision."

In the three full games since suffering the injury, Butler has averaged 10.7 field-goal attempts and 6.0 free-throw attempts. He's averaging 14.7 shots and 7.3 free throw attempts for the season, so perhaps he's been more conservative of late.

Butler scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the field and a 4-of-4 showing at the line Monday. It's worth nothing he was often guarded by Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

5. Whether to have his team foul or defend when up three points in the waning seconds was a point of debate and stress for Hoiberg at times during his Iowa State tenure, notably during the 2013 Big 12 season when his Cyclones were burned twice on it. On one occasion, Iowa State chose not to foul, only to see Kansas bank in a 3-pointer for the tie. On another occasion, Iowa State was instructed by Hoiberg to foul but didn't follow through on it and allowed Texas to hit a tying 3-pointer as well. The Cyclones eventually lost both games.

Up 92-89 with 10.6 seconds left Monday, Hoiberg instructed the Bulls not to foul. He admitted he entertained the idea before thinking better of it. Butler blanketed Leonard, forcing him into a tough miss from behind the arc before Rose recovered off the loose ball to block Parker's attempt to tie it.

"We talked about it," Hoiberg said. "We thought there was too much time. And Jimmy crowding Leonard like he was, he made a good read not to foul."

While Hoiberg's quote left it open-ended, Butler confirmed he wasn't given the option to foul by his coach. He was told to play defense straight up, which he was happy to hear, for he finds it unnatural to purposely foul.

"I don't want to foul because I'll mess around and foul him when he's in the act of shooting," Butler said.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

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