TWO MINUTES: Our Most Improved Player Rankings probably have done a bit of a disservice to Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler, who has been thrust into a huge role by injuries to multiple teammates and has been playing out of his mind. In 10 games since Jan. 18, Butler is averaging 14.9 points with 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 39.5 minutes, while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 90 percent from the line. Butler has filled frontcourt spots vacated by injuries to Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer while also taking shooting guard minutes away from Richard Hamilton. “I think it hit home the most when Luol came up to me and said, ‘You can do this. This is your time, step in and keep playing the way you have been playing,’” Butler said. “When you hear that from an All-Star, from Derrick (Rose) and Jo (Joakim Noah), that’s big.” Said Deng, “I’m just so happy for him that because it takes time to understand the NBA game. There are still a lot of areas he can get better at, but what he’s shown so far is just his hard work and he’s going to keep getting better.” Given coach Tom Thibodeau’s emphasis on defense, don’t be surprised if Butler plays more than Hamilton in the postseason. … Here’s the definition of piling on: In Saturday’s 120-81 home win over the Kings, the Knicks took 14 3-pointers – including one by Kurt Thomas – after opening a 74-43 lead midway through the third quarter. … Saturday’s loss in Cleveland completed a run of 12 road contests in 15 games for Oklahoma City, which emerged from that stretch with a 10-5 mark. Not bad, but not good enough to hold onto the top seed in the West. They were overtaken by San Antonio, which completed a run of seven home games in 10 contests – and won ‘em all. But the Spurs now start their annual “Rodeo Road Trip,” a nine-game trek until their next home contest on Feb. 27. That is the same day the Thunder wrap up a stretch of seven home dates in 10 games, so expect some more jockeying before the teams enter March probably separated by no more than a game. … In his last eight games, Hawks swingman Kyle Korver is shooting an unfathomable 61 percent (34-of-56) from 3-point range. To match that efficiency with the same number of 2-point shots, you would have to shoot 92 percent (51-of-56). … The Heat love to use their defense to create transition offense but have been unable to do that in two meetings with the Pacers. Miami has a grand total of eight transition points in two losses to Indiana this season. Of course, the Pacers also held a 2-1 lead on the Heat in last year’s playoffs and didn’t win again. “It’s good to beat them, but we can’t overreact to this,” David West said. “We match up with them.” … According to Elias, when the Lakers went 0-7 on the road in January, it was the first time in franchise history they went winless on the road in a complete month. … Andrew Bogut has returned for the Warriors, and while he is not playing in back-to-back games and looks a half-step behind the action, he is still finding ways to contribute in limited minutes. In three games, Bogut is averaging 10.3 points in 24.3 minutes. More important, he also has amassed 20 rebounds and 11 blocks, numbers that transfer to averages of 9.8 boards and 5.28 blocks per 36 minutes. And his presence on the defensive end has been noticed. “I felt like I became a better defender tonight because he’s constantly talking to me and constantly rotating to get my back,” said forward David Lee, who played a lot of undersized center in Bogut’s absence. Bogut’s return also has rookie center Festus Ezeli picking up garbage time minutes after starting most of the season. We love Ezeli’s physical presence, but he couldn’t score in a brothel; Golden State is much better off with a limited Bogut in the middle. … Much was made of Nets forward Reggie Evans devaluing the Heat’s title because it came in a “lockout season” and saying LeBron James was “no different from Joe Johnson or Andray Blatche.” While those certainly were heavy words, somewhat overlooked was what Nets forward Gerald Wallace said after James and Miami responded with a 20-point beatdown of Brooklyn. “Typical Nets basketball,” Wallace said. “We don’t play together. Careless turnovers. We don’t execute offensively. And defensively, we don’t do anything. We don’t defend. We don’t guard the ball. We don’t help each other out. It’s the same story as it’s been all season.” Wow.
Trivia Answer: Milwaukee (Michael Redd) and Sacramento (Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic). … Happy 30th Birthday, Dajuan Wagner. … For a change, Russell Westbrook might want to try yelling at reporters and not talking to teammates.
Chris Bernucca is the deputy editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.