MILWAUKEE -- Jimmy Butler gets asked the same question all the time. Fans, media, even his own family and friends all wonder the same thing.
Why are the Chicago Bulls so up and down?
One night they lose at home to a bad Philadelphia 76ers team, a couple days later they throttle a Milwaukee Bucks squad that had demolished Butler and his teammates the three other times they played prior to the Bulls' 109-94 victory on Sunday afternoon.
"Everybody that I talk to," Butler said. "I live with people that think that they know so much about basketball. So I got to sit there and deal with that. Hell, I even think about it sometimes. It's like, 'How?' 'Why?' And there's no answer for it because you never know what team is going to show up on any given day. It's sad, but it's the truth."
It's rare that a professional athlete offers that type of honesty, but after 74 games Butler doesn't feel like sugarcoating anything. The Bulls are who they are: a misshapen roster of inconsistent young players. But, as it has gone all season, just when most people are ready to write off the Bulls, they pull everybody back in with an unexpected win. Sunday offered the latest example as Butler rattled off a career-high 14 assists to go with 20 points, while Niko Mirotic tied a season high with 28 points.
Since being made inactive prior to a March 12 loss to the Boston Celtics, Mirotic has played with the type of edge the Bulls have been hoping to see more regularly since his rookie season. He admitted that the ups and downs of the season have made him "stronger," and said he is playing with more confidence now than at any other point. More than any other player, Mirotic has benefited from knowing that coach Fred Hoiberg is going to leave him on the floor for 25 to 30 minutes each night.
"It's a great feeling," Mirotic said. "It's not like once you come to the floor you're going to be there like five, six minutes. If you miss a shot you're going to get [pulled] out. You know that you're going to be there a little longer even if you're missing shots. Because they're trusting you, they want you to play, they want to be there. Then, you're just playing your basketball. You're not thinking, you're playing -- when shots come you're taking the shots without hesitation. I think those kinds of things are helping me a lot to play at this level. And hopefully I can [continue] like that."
When it was pointed out to Mirotic that, once again, he is performing well during the month of March, the affable big man chuckled. Over his three-year NBA career, Mirotic is averaging 15.6 points a game in March.
"It's just my month," he said. "I don't know why, but it's my month. I don't know how, but every year I'm playing well in March."
Whether Mirotic and his teammates can close the season well remains to be seen. With the Miami Heat losing on Sunday, the Bulls are just a half-game behind the Heat for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. As Hoiberg tries to find ways to keep his team motivated, he offered a rare direct answer as to why his group hasn't been able to stay focused night after night.
"A lot of times when we get slapped in the face, when we get punched in the mouth, when the adversity hits us, we don't handle it well," Hoiberg said. "We talk about it, every game it's going to happen at some point. You're going to have to handle adversity, you're going to have to get through it and it will determine the outcome of the game. Tonight, we did that. They got off to a good start, we hung in there, we kept battling, I didn't see any head hanging ... it's handling adversity. That's the biggest thing that we have to do these last eight games if we want to have a chance."
Like Hoiberg, Butler isn't sure exactly how this strange season will finish up, but he remains buoyed by the belief that his younger teammates do want to play deep into April and enjoy the platform that comes with playing postseason games.
"I don't think anybody plays this game to lose," Butler said. "Who would waste their time to have a long summer, grueling offseason, come into preseason and practice two times a day, have back-to-backs, four in five nights -- just to say, 'Ah, s---. I want to go home'? I don't anybody in here thinks like that. We all want to win. We all want to see ourselves in the playoffs."