To Jimmy Butler, it's simple.
Whether he's averaging 45.2 minutes in the five games he started for Luol Deng or playing 31 minutes, 14 seconds in reserve of Deng and others, as he did during Monday's 93-85 victory over the Bobcats, his role remains the same.
"Rebound, guard and make some open shots," Butler said. "Starting gave me a lot more confidence. But I'm still able to do those things (off the bench)."
Indeed, Butler stole the show, backing up his promise with a career-high 19 points and six rebounds, playing at shooting guard alongside Deng for a long second-quarter stretch and most of the final 5:28.
"Jimmy's a big part of the team," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Lu has been huge for us. We know we have flexibility. You do what's best for the team."
Deng returned after missing five games with an injured right hamstring and finished with 12 points in just over 31 minutes as the Bulls avenged their New Year's Eve home loss to the Bobcats.
"I felt great," Deng said. "I hadn't gone full speed like that, so I was a little worried about the change of speed and direction. So I'm happy I was able not to have any setbacks. It felt a little tight, but it didn't feel like how it felt when I first did it."
Thibodeau admitted he didn't want to overextend Deng's minutes in his first game while casually plugging him for defensive player of the year.
"There may not be a better defender in the league," Thibodeau said.
At least against the speedy, perimeter-driven Bobcats, minutes dropped for Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton. Thibodeau even used the combination of Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson for a brief third-quarter stretch.
"They went real small," Thibodeau said. "I liked (Butler's) quickness out there defensively."
The Bulls pulled away late in the third after the Bobcats tied it at 55-55 with 3:36 remaining. Joakim Noah, huge again with a double-double, seven assists and five blocks in nearly 45 minutes, scored on a three-point play. Robinson, who contributed 15 points off the bench, fueled a 13-0 run with two 3-pointers as the Bobcats failed to score for 4:24.
With 13 points and 18 rebounds, Noah became the first Bull to grab 15 or more rebounds in four straight games since Dennis Rodman in March 1998.
Robinson poured it on in the fourth, scoring eight points as the Bulls pushed their lead to 14. But old friend Ben Gordon found his range in the final period as well, scoring 10 of his 18 points as the Bobcats trimmed the lead to six late.
That's when Carlos Boozer powered home a left-handed dunk over Bismack Biyombo off a feed from Robinson with 1:24 left to jazz the sellout crowd of 21,308.
"As long as we play the type of basketball we know we're capable of, we can beat any team," Butler said. "We can also lose to any team if we don't."
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