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Westerlund: Comeback Doesn't Cover Up Bulls' Lingering Challenge

By Cody Westerlund-

CHICAGO (CBS) – Let's get the fun part out of the way and be fair to the star of the show Thursday night at the United Center.

Jimmy Butler played some of the most brilliant basketball of his career in the Bulls' 85-84 preseason win against the Hawks, capping his team's rally from a 21-point deficit with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the left wing that brought his total to 29 points for the game – more than he's ever scored as a professional in the regular season – and 20 in the fourth quarter alone. This was a terrific sign for the fourth-year pro Butler, who remains 15 days away from a deadline to sign a contract extension before he would embark on an uncertain path to be a restricted free agent at season's end.

The man has the utmost belief in himself right and is answering the question that will decide how much he's worth – how efficient and capable is he on the offensive end?

Through five preseason games, the 25-year-old Butler has been Chicago's best player, averaging 18.6 points on 60 percent shooting and largely ignoring the 3-pointer (just five attempts), which is his biggest weakness.

"I know my teammates had confidence in me to take that shot and have the ball in my hands late," said Butler, who added he's not worried about contract talks going down to the wire.

"My confidence is high. That's the way you have to play this game. All summer, I worked on my game. The biggest thing is confidence, taking shots that I know I can make. I'm really happy the way I'm going now."

Now, let's move on to the hard truth. The only reason Butler had the chance to hit the game-winner Thursday was because the Bulls played terrible basketball for three quarters. Chicago did this against an Atlanta team that was down two starters – Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap – and relied on stalwarts Kyle Korver and Al Horford very little (their combined 31 minutes, 3 seconds of playing time was less than Butler's 31:12 alone).

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer cared about trotting out a winning lineup about as much as a preschooler does coloring inside the lines. As Chicago rallied down the stretch with starters Butler, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah (his first fourth-quarter action of the preseason) and go-to sub Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell, Budenholzer countered late with the law firm of Schroder-Payne-Jenkins-Eddie-Muscala (Google the roster, if you're that curious), none of whom were among Atlanta's regular top 10 guys last year.

That's a nice way of saying the Bulls' big comeback meant little to nothing.

What was plenty meaningful was how Chicago found itself in a hole. In what's been a preseason trend too often, the Bulls' second unit was awful.

On Thursday, Taj Gibson finished with a -17 plus/minus. Nikola Mirotic's was -10. Hinrich's was +3, but that's only because he got late run against third-stringers. (With Mike Dunleavy sitting out, Doug McDermott was moved into the starting lineup.)

When Noah and Derrick Rose left with under five minutes left in the first quarter, the Bulls led an ugly game 11-10. When they returned midway through the second quarter, Chicago trailed 31-19.

In an brutal first-half stretch of 9 minutes, 55 seconds with the second unit receiving most of those minutes, the Bulls scored four points on 2-of-14 shooting while turning the ball over four times.

There was simply no rhythm, and other than posting up Gibson, that second unit doesn't seem to have an offensive identity yet. The Bulls haven't run a lot of pick-and-roll, and that group doesn't have an explosive creator like Rose and isn't as adept at passing as the Gasol/Noah pairing is, leaving it with fewer options.

The second unit struggled in a similar manner in a win against the Bucks last Saturday and was also outplayed in losses against the Wizards and Pistons. While it's way too early to draw long-term conclusions, it's worth acknowledging this is the Bulls' biggest challenge right now – integrating new faces and settling on personnel to mold a cohesive second unit.

After all, this restocking-of-depth approach is what Chicago management went all-in on after losing out in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes in the offseason.

"We just have a lot of work to do," Noah said. "Continuity's important. Right now we're in a situation where we got to find the right balance. We got guys coming back from injuries. That's a reality. Continuity is very important as well. We got to find the right balance. It's not pointing fingers at anybody. We just got to find ways as a team to make this work, and I know we will."

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau's a man who can't stand to lose, one who lets loose a double fist-pump after a Butler 3-pointer beats the horn and a D-League five. So his second unit needs to find some rhythm in the final three preseason games, or he'll be more than willing to rely heavily on the starters, just as he did on this dreary mid-October night in a game that doesn't count.

Such is a habit of Thibodeau's, sometimes out of circumstance, sometimes out of stubbornness, yet a habit nonetheless. No edict from the front office or epiphany will change that. Only the players' performance will, and that's where the focus should turn now.

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

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