CHICAGO — This is how it was supposed to be all along.
The partnership between Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler has never been a perfect one for the Chicago Bulls, but there has never been any doubt about how effective they could be together when both are at full health and playing in a system that highlights their strengths.
The upside of this pairing has long overshadowed whispers of tension between the former league MVP and current face of the franchise. There has always been a prevailing thought within the organization and the fanbase in Chicago that, if Rose and Butler could just get on the same page and stay healthy, everything would work out.
The Bulls are starting to see the fruits of that partnership now, with Rose playing his best basketball of the season, picking up where he left off after missing three games last week with a minor hamstring issue.
Meanwhile, Butler has been backing up his leadership aspirations with All-Star-caliber play at both ends of the floor. The Bulls have usually had one of these two things going at a time, but not both.
Now, in the midst of a winning streak that has stretched to six games after the Bulls’ 101-92 Thursday night win over the visiting Boston Celtics, the Bulls backcourt is more locked in than it’s been all season. Rose had 18 points on 9-of-16 shooting, while Butler had 19 on 5-of-14 shooting. They combined for 12 rebounds and 13 assists in a game where all five Chicago starters scored in double figures.
“You can see those guys sharing the ball with each other,” Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “If one of them gets it going…Jimmy was doing a good job tonight of making sure Derrick had the ball in his hands. And Derrick the last couple of games was doing a good job of getting the ball to Jimmy. They have a nice little chemistry going right now.”
That chemistry is going to be vital to build going forward if the Bulls hope to separate themselves in the Eastern Conference playoff race. At this point, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the clear front-runners, with several other teams trying to establish themselves as the Cavs’ toughest challenger.
At 22-12, Chicago sits in second place in the East, with a one-and-a-half-game lead over the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks. Those teams are competing with one another for positioning, but ultimately they’re all vying to knock off the Cavaliers.
The Raptors have weathered injuries to DeMarre Carroll (knee surgery) and Jonas Valanciunas (hand) thanks in large part to the dynamic interplay of their backcourt tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. If Rose and Butler can keep playing together like this, that makes the Bulls that much more likely to compete with the rest of a suddenly crowded group of Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls.
For Rose and Butler, it’s all about communication.
“I kept telling [Butler] tonight to keep shooting, even though his shot wasn’t falling the way he wanted it to,” Rose said after the game. “I told him to keep shooting and keep being aggressive because him being aggressive opens it up for everyone else.”
Butler has asserted his presence as the Bulls’ on-floor leader all season. It’s been Rose who's been slow to come along after a facial injury kept him sidelined for most of training camp, but in recent weeks, he’s found his rhythm.
Since the Bulls’ Christmas Day win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rose has averaged 19.6 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting, driving much more aggressively than he was at the beginning of the year.
And, more encouragingly, he hasn’t lost a step in his second game back from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for three contests. Against the Celtics, nine of his 16 shot attempts came in the restricted area.
It allowed Rose to carry the team offensively on a night when Butler’s shot was off, something the Bulls haven’t been able to count on consistently until recently.
“We’re making each other get a lot of easy baskets, continually telling each other to stay aggressive even when shots aren’t falling,” Butler said. “That’s what good teammates do. Like tonight, for me, him being in my corner telling me to keep at it was huge.”
The Bulls have a tough stretch of schedule coming up, with 18 games remaining before the All-Star break and 13 of them on the road. Joakim Noah (shoulder) should be returning to the lineup sometime next week, and then Hoiberg will have another set of problems to solve with the frontcourt rotation.
But if the Rose-Butler pairing is producing on a consistent basis, that will make the upcoming rough patch easier for everybody, including the two star guards.
“The more minutes we play together, the more games we play, the more comfortable we're going to be,” Butler said. “This offense is new to both of us, but as long as we're playing fast, getting the ball up the court, attacking, getting into the paint, getting to the free-throw line, it helps both of us.”