DEERFIELD -- Now that Rip Hamilton’s left-foot injury has been diagnosed as a torn plantar fascia -- an ailment that doesn't disappear overnight -- the question is, who starts at shooting guard during the veteran’s absence? Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t shed much light on the situation following the team’s practice Monday at the Berto Center.
“I’m not sure yet,” said the coach, who followed that revelation up with “could be,” when asked if either second-year swingman Jimmy Butler or backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli would fill in for Hamilton.
“Everybody we have has played well at one time or another, so I feel good about that position. Marco has started a lot of games before, Jimmy has played terrific all season long and we have some flexibility, too. Kirk [Hinrich, the team’s current starting point guard] can go to the two, so we’ll be fine,” he continued, as injured superstar Derrick Rose periodically popped out, while running sprints under the supervision of the team's training staff.
“We’re going to look at everything. We’re going to take a look at what makes most sense to us and we’ll go from there. But I like the way Jimmy’s played, Marco’s playing better and better, so we have a lot of things going in the right direction right now.”
Thibodeau lamented the loss of Hamilton, who is averaging 13.9 points per game and is valuable threat on a mostly scoring-deficient squad. More significantly, he’s one of few players on the Bulls that opposing teams have to truly game-plan for defensively.
“We’ll see. Basically, it could be a week, could be two weeks, could be longer. Once [Hamilton] feels good enough to play, he’ll be back,” Thibodeau said. “It’s not only scoring, but his playmaking. With that being said, we have more than enough to win with. The next guy has to step up, know what his job is, do his job and get it done.
“He’s doing fine, good spirits. He actually worked out today. He’s got some soreness, but he’ll be fine,” he added. “You see it more and more. In his case, it’s better that it’s torn; that speeds everything up -- that’s one of those things, it lingers for a while -- but he’ll be fine. He’s had a number of different injuries. He understands what he has to go through to get back.”
Due to how well Butler has been playing as of late, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thibodeau give Belinelli the nod as the starter, to keep the budding chemistry on the Bulls’ second unit going. Butler and Taj Gibson have repeatedly energized the Bulls with their defensive prowess and transition scoring off the bench, something Butler himself noted Monday.
“I wouldn’t mind that at all. I was talking to ‘Griff’ [Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin] about it and I like being that spark off the bench with Taj. I feel like that gives me a lot more energy. Just running out there with Taj, seeing the energy that he gives off, the big plays that he makes, the hustle plays, I kind of want to be like that coming off the bench,” he explained. “I don’t think I have a case. I just feel like if I start or come off the bench, my job is to bring energy to the team and hit open shots.
“To tell you the truth, I never even think about it. I feel like coming off the bench [or] starting, I feel like we all just want to win the game, so if I come off the bench [or play] at the end of the game, I just want the Bulls to have more points than our opponent,” Butler continued. “I’m a lot more confident, but I think it’s because the work that I put in every day that the confidence that my teammates have in me is so much different than in the beginning of the season. The game’s starting to slow down, I’m starting to be more patient, I know where to get on the floor, where to get the ball, so it makes everything a lot easier.
“It means a lot because there’s a lot more reps, and there’s a lot more possessions up and down the court, different plays with different players, so you get the feel for a lot of different things, not only in the game, but the many different teammates that I might play with.”
Still, Butler claimed that he’s just as in the dark as the rest of us.
That, or Thibodeau swore him to secrecy.
“I really do not know. Coach, he hasn’t said anything,” he deadpanned. “He’ll let us know tomorrow.
“I don’t even think I’ll have to call my mom. She reads the Internet more than I do, so she’ll tell everybody before I even get a chance to,” the Texas native went on to say. “Rip’s a great player, a great leader and he does a lot of things well for our team, so he definitely will be missed, but he’ll be coaching us up, he’ll be there spiritually and on the bench, cheering, and letting everybody know what they could do better. That’s what leaders do.”
Thibodeau has been pleased with Butler’s progress after he saw scant playing time as a rookie a year ago. His slashing ability, athleticism, toughness and defense have all been boons for the Bulls and while he’s still developing as an outside shooter, there are signs -- including a big corner three-pointer down the stretch of the Bulls’ narrow home win Saturday over Philadelphia -- that he can make an impact in that aspect of the game, as well.
Thibodeau explained: “He’s a very good corner three-point shooter, so if it’s there, I want him to shoot it. I think he’s played very smart, he’s playing to his strengths. He’s moving extremely well without the ball, he’s a great cutter, he’s tough on the baseline. He’s done a number of things well. He attacks the basket, gets to the free-throw line, sprints the floor in transition and those are the things we need him to do.”
Butler chimed in: “Oh, definitely. I think my teammates know that I should take that shot. They know if I’m there and if I’m open, I’m going to take that shot. I think I’m going to make it, they think I’m going to make it, so I’ve just got to get out there and shoot it.”
Of course, Belinelli came to Chicago with a reputation as a shooter and although he struggled mightily to begin the season, he’s starting to play better as time goes on. Perhaps more important to Thibodeau is the fact that he’s starting to grasp the level of defense it takes to be a contributor to the Bulls.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable and I think his team defense is very good right now, it continues to improve, he’s putting a lot of effort into it and that’s all we want him to do, just keep improving,” the coach said. “I think he’s got a little more comfortable with everything and he’s got experience. I think he knows his opponent well and he’s putting forth good effort each and every day.”
It’s unlikely that Thibodeau follows through on his suggestion that Hinrich is a potential starter at shooting guard -- that decision would mean Nate Robinson would start at point guard, taking away his instant-offense scoring off the bench -- but it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.
“The value of Kirk is that he can defend three positions and it doesn’t matter who those three are. He’s a great defensive player. But we’re going to do what’s best for the team, what we feel gives us the best chance to win,” Thibodeau said. “We’ll see. I’d like to get into a rotation, so guys have an idea when they’re coming in, but we’ll take a look at a lot of different things.”
Hinrich, who has significant experience playing both guard positions -- and even functioned as a small forward, at least on the defensive end, during his brief tenure in Washington, playing alongside John Wall and Gilbert Arenas -- is prepared for anything.
“I’d be comfortable doing whatever. I’ve been working on dummy offense at the two a little bit, just so I would know it,” he rationalized. “I wouldn’t have any problem with anything [Thibodeau] did, to be honest, as long as it’s what we wanted to do as a team and what direction we wanted to go with [that] we thought was going to give us the best chance to win.”
Still, the veteran seemed to indicate that he believed that either Belinelli or Butler would be playing next to him Tuesday night, when the Bulls host the Pacers in the first of four games in five nights, including a two-game road trip that will see them visit Cleveland and Detroit.
“We’re still going to run our stuff. Obviously they’re [Belinelli and Butler] a little bit different than Rip. Both of them have a little bit kind of different games, per se, so either one of them, I think, would fill in nicely and I think we’re lucky to have guys like that to come off the bench and step up,” said Hinrich, who noted that Hamilton was “treating it [his injury] … I saw him on the [stationary] bike a little bit,” while the team practiced. “They play that spot every day. The only difference would be they would be with the starting unit. They’re familiar with the system, they know how we’re going to play and it’s a matter of coming out and playing.
“You can weigh the pros and cons of it all you want. The bottom line is both of them are going to get their minutes. I don’t know which unit it’s going to be with.”
Regardless of who starts in the backcourt, the Bulls are aware that their upcoming stretch won’t be easy, since after their trio of matchups against Central Division rivals, they’ll return home to face one of the league’s top teams in the Knicks -- giving them a pair of back-to-back contests in a four-game span -- and then delve into an even tougher slate during the middle of December. Indiana, which was reeling at the outset of the season, following the loss of go-to scorer Danny Granger, has been much-improved as of late, playing a similar style of ugly basketball to the Bulls, as one of the few teams in the league with a defense that’s statistically better than Chicago’s.
“They’re playing very well right now. They’ve played well on this trip. They’ve been on the road for a while. They play hard, their defense is terrific, they pound the ball inside, they share the ball, so it’ll be a good test for us,” said Thibodeau.
"Whatever comes your way, you have to be ready for. We had the long West Coast trip with one back-to-back and so, that’s a little bit different. Then, it was split for the Milwaukee game. Now, you’re dealing with some back-to-backs. I think the whole key is to get ready for your next opponent. Sometimes the schedule’s going in your favor, sometimes it’s going against you. But just be ready for each opponent and concentrate on improvement. That’s all we want to do, keep getting better each and every day, and if we do that and we’re locked into the right things, we will improve.
Hinrich added: “We’ve got four games in five nights this week, but we’ve got a big one tomorrow against a division opponent and hopefully we can continue to play well, and continue to get some wins.
“I think they [Indiana] kind of got off to a slow start, but they’re playing really well lately and they’re a very good team.”
Tags: Tom Thibodeau
, Chicago Bulls
, Taj Gibson
, Kirk Hinrich
, Nate Robinson
, Marco Belinelli
, Rip Hamilton
, Jimmy Butler