CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler didn't miss a beat in the box score during Saturday's much-needed 108-100 win over the Houston Rockets. After missing a month because of a left knee strain, the All-Star swingman racked up 24 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Chicago Bulls snap a four-game losing streak. Butler did everything the Bulls needed him to do. He was solid defensively while guarding James Harden, and he gave the Bulls the scoring punch they've been lacking without him. But after the game ended, the proud 26-year-old knew there was something missing from his game that wouldn't appear within the gaudy numbers.
"I need to get in there and run some laps," Butler said. "I'm out of shape."
It didn't matter that Butler was winded. He gave the Bulls what he had when they needed a win to right their dwindling season. With Butler back and Nikola Mirotic reappearing after missing over a month because of complications related to an appendectomy, the Bulls finally appeared almost whole in a season in which their starting five of Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Butler had yet to play a game together all season. It's no wonder why Gasol called Butler's and Mirotic's presence the lineup "critical." Butler set an example early that the rest of his teammates followed.
"Jimmy makes a huge impact on both ends of the floor," Gasol said. "Especially on the defensive end. His physicality and his activity and energy make a big difference because it kind of picks everybody up as well and sets a tone for the rest of the guys."
Aside from Butler's return, the key for the Bulls is that they found a team in the Rockets that's even more dysfunctional than they are. Watching the Rockets make mistake after mistake was similar to watching the way the Bulls have played many times during the season. The teams combined for 43 turnovers, 25 of which came from the Bulls.
That's why any optimism coming from the Bulls' locker room has to be tempered by the fact that Chicago beat a team even more underwhelming than itself. The good news for Fred Hoiberg's beleaguered group: With 21 games left, Butler has the ability to serve as a stabilizer for a team that still talks about making a push into the playoffs. Butler's return gives the Bulls something they haven't had much of in weeks -- hope.
"It's huge," Rose said of Butler's return. "Whenever he's got the ball, you got to stick both of us. It's hard to pay attention to both of us when we're on the court. And we get to catch the ball with a live dribble so that helps the team out a lot."
Butler's words also serve as a reality check for a team that hasn't shown the consistency to believe it can turn it around down the stretch. A late surge by the Rockets pushed the Bulls' streak of giving up 100 or points in a game to 16 in a row. To Butler's credit, he was realistic about the possibilities ahead for his team when asked how good the group can be in the final 21 games in the regular season.
"Who knows?" Butler said. "We've talked about it all year long. We can be really good whenever we guard."
The good news for Butler and his teammates is that positive signs were present throughout the night -- albeit in small doses. The Bulls moved the ball with the type of pace and regularity that Hoiberg has been begging for during a first quarter that saw them race out to a 12-point lead. They didn't completely roll over in the fourth quarter, as they have many times this season when an opposing team fights its way back into the game.
The Bulls still have a long way to go to feel solid about the playoff spot that has become more difficult to attain than most would have thought possible at the beginning of the season. But with a full complement of players back, aside from injured center Joakim Noah, and with Butler still getting his legs underneath him, the Bulls offered up a reminder that things can get better -- at least for one night.
"Every game for us is a playoff game if we really want to make the playoffs," Rose said. "And I think guys do so we just got to come out and keep giving this effort."