Emotional Joakim Noah leads Bulls

He's not the only Chicago player going well, of course. Much will be made, and should be, of the way Jimmy Butler played LeBron Sunday. Butler's 16 points, 11 rebounds and 4 steals (including the key swipe from LeBron that allowed the game to go into overtime) would have been acceptable enough in any context. But even more impressive was Butler "forcing" LeBron into 8-for-23 shooting. It speaks to the greatness of the best player in the NBA when he nearly comes up with a triple-double (17 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), yet one of the critical storylines is what great defense somebody played on him. Nonetheless, LeBron had zero foul shots in a game for the first time since December of 2009, which speaks either to a rare tentative afternoon for LeBron or Butler doing something that should be credited. Would LeBron settle for so many jump shots in a playoff game against the Bulls? No chance. Would Butler be whistled for only one foul (as he was Sunday) in a playoff game against LeBron? Again, no chance.

But Butler -- and the Bulls knew this the night they drafted him -- is an Adonis of an athlete himself with a streak of fearlessness. He matriculated at Marquette, in fact, valuing the physical and mental toughness of another Marquette alumnus, Dwyane Wade. As coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward, "The thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He's fierce."

Butler isn't a horn-tooter, but asked about his own approach to dealing with LeBron, Butler said, as if it's a philosophy, "I don't back down ... I was playing defense the way I know how to play defense. It's effort."

The night Butler was drafted by the Bulls at the end of the first round in 2011, he talked about understanding that a team with stars like Rose and Deng and Noah needed a kid like him to want to help harass LeBron and D-Wade. For three seasons the Bulls liked the way the taller and angular Deng guarded LeBron, but now the job has fallen primarily to Butler, and James was quick to compliment Butler on the steal that sent the game into OT.

There's other stuff working in the Bulls' favor, too. D.J. Augustin, disregarding a two-game shooting slump, has become as close as the Bulls are going to get to the Robinson/Belinelli combo of last season. Augustin hit 8 of 13 shots against Miami and scored a team-high 22 points, and -- this is going to sound blasphemous, but so be it -- does one thing better than Rose did against Miami: Augustin keeps his dribble alive and makes the Heat pay as often as not for that high trap on the point guard.

Something else that can't be overlooked: Taj Gibson is one of the three most improved players in the NBA, if not the most improved.

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